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EPISODE 157: Symantec Federal Sales Chief Chris Townsend Says This Brutal Customer Insight Shifted His Career Forever
CHRIS’ FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “There’s this negative connotation that’s around sales that we’re out there trying to push things on our customers that they don’t want. That’s the furthest thing from the truth. We’re actually in there helping our customers advance their business and we can be relevant to the mission and be a part of some really impactful – especially in federal, because the mission is so important. .”
Chris Townsend is the VP of Symantec Federal.
Prior to coming to Symantec, he held sales leadership positions in Cisco and Blue Code.
He’s an expert on cybersecurity.
Find Chris on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you sell today? Tell us what excites you about that.
Chris Townsend: I’m very excited about the cybersecurity solution that Symantec brings to market today. If you look at the challenges that our federal customers are facing – and our non-federal customers, for that matter – most of their security environments are built out very reactively. They bought a lot of tools over time in reaction to threats that they saw out in the environment and as a result, now they’ve got these very complex, hard to operate, costly environments to maintain.
Symantec is really bringing a consolidated platform approach to that and really driving some common standards and integration there not only across our own solutions but across third party solutions as well. We’re really starting to get control of the costs around security simplifying the operating environment and also helping our customers navigate the increased complexity of the IT environment as they move to mobile, cloud and IOT and how to secure those environments without compounding the complexity that already exists in their environment. We’re making a significant mission impact in our customer’s environment so it’s easy to get excited about.
Fred Diamond: Again, Symantec Federal. Do you sell to the entire US Federal government?
Chris Townsend: I do, all three primary verticals in federal. If you look at the way federal market breaks down, you’ve got Department of Defense, Civilian, the intelligence community and then we also have the systems integrator world as well.
Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about your sales career. How did you first get into sales as a career?
Chris Townsend: It’s an interesting story, Fred and we could burn probably the entire interview just on that but I’ll give you the quick background. I graduated in accounting degree, realized I probably didn’t have the focus required to be an accountant so wanted to look at doing something else, I knew I wanted to live in Colorado. I’d gone to school in upstate New York and started sending some resumes out in Colorado, talked to a health insurance company that was looking for a healthcare analyst that fit my financial background and they also had a sales position open.
I went in, really wasn’t interested in sales, had some negative connotation of what sales was about but I went and interviewed for the position. It was interesting because it was around health insurance for retirees which made it even less interesting at the time, didn’t really see myself in that role but I sat down with a hired manager and they talked about the flexibility and the schedule. They were giving me a car allowance and a laptop and a cell phone and what the average income was. I’d also looked at working at some of the, back then, big 6 accounting firms in starting a career there and what they were paying in this sales role was double and my schedule was my own. I decided to try my hand at sales and never looked back.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the things you learned from some of those first few sales jobs?
Chris Townsend: One, you have to be willing to challenge yourself. One of the great things about being in sales is that you can affect your own destiny and affect your own career more so than just about any other career track that you take on. You’re immediately accountable to how hard you want to work and how hard you want to push yourself to learn and improve your craft. Getting up and doing public speaking in front of groups, that’s a common fear that everybody has, you have to work through that and develop your public speaking ability.
You have to be comfortable learning new topics and new information and going to talk to people that you haven’t met with before, you have to like spending time with people, certainly. Sales from my perspective is all about how hard you’re willing to prepare and how hard you’re willing to work to succeed and be willing to challenge yourself.
Fred Diamond: We’ll get your tips for the younger sales professionals listening across the globe to the podcast. I’m just curious, how do you challenge yourself? Again, you’re the VP for Symantec Federal, it’s a big brand in the federal space, cyber security obviously is of critical importance these days for reasons most of our listeners probably know about. Tell us some things that you do to challenge yourself.
Chris Townsend: Great question. I learned very early in my career that what gets me out of bed every day is the ability to make an impact and challenge myself. I think we’re paid in two ways, we pay in our weekly/monthly paycheck and we’re paid in what we can learn from our positions. Frankly, what we learn is much more valuable than the monthly paycheck we receive. In order to learn, you have to always take on more responsibility and push yourself and challenge yourself.
Certainly you do a lot of that on your own reading and research but if you look at my career and the different roles that I’ve had and for example I’ll hit on this quickly – I shifted from a healthcare career working at Cigna to IT. I was living in Colorado, the Cigna career was clear, I was going to have to leave the area that I wanted to live in, I had some friends that had moved into IT, I didn’t really have an IT background. I didn’t know the difference between, at that time, NT and Unix – dating myself there a little bit. I was willing to learn it, figure it out and push myself to get into a career that I thought would be a better path than the one I was on and did that. You have to be comfortable with taking risk and pushing yourself.
Fred Diamond: Curiously, as a sales leader do you push your people? Do you challenge them as well? If I were to talk to your direct reports, your people a couple levels down and say, “Does Chris challenge you?” is that something that’s common with you that people know about?
Chris Townsend: I would say absolutely, probably more than some of them would like. I’ll give you an example of some of the change that we’re going through right now. Symantec’s gone through a significant evolution over the last 3 years if you’ve seen. We spun out the Veritas business and made a lot of acquisitions in the cyber security space, significantly increased our product portfolio. Earlier when I talked about our value proposition to our customers, we’ve really shifted from a company that was very good at selling products. We were selling end point technologies like antivirus and DLP which are really important technologies but now we’ve got this broad product portfolio that extends everything from end point to network boundary to cloud.
The value proposition is much more relevant at the Chief Information Security officer and the CIO level but it’s a very different conversation. It’s a much more business-focused conversation and less of technology-focused conversation so I’m pushing my team to understand, “What is important to your Chief Information Security Officers?” They’re looking at risk mitigations, they’re looking at cost savings, they’re looking at operational efficiencies. The speeds and feeds of the technology, while they’re still important, aren’t nearly as relevant at that level when you have to challenge yourself to make sure that you’re able to have those conversations, number one.
Number two, that we’re really positioning Symantec as a trusted adviser to our customer to solve problems and not just showing up trying to sell widgets. It’s easy for us here to say that, but it’s a fundamental change in how your approach to your customer is.
Fred Diamond: That’s been one of the key themes over the course of the Sales Game Changers podcast interviews, is that you as a sales professional, to continue to be even valid you need to provide tremendous amount of value to your customers. That’s not in the sense of, “Here’s our top 5 features”, that’s in the sense of, “Here’s how we can help you with your business challenges.” That’s very impactful, I’m sure we’ll talk about that a little more over the course of the podcast. Chris, why don’t you tell us a little more about your specific area of expertise? Tell us about your area of brilliance and what you’re an expert in.
Chris Townsend: I don’t know that I have any areas of brilliance per se. I think I’ve always brought a strong work ethic, I’m big on planning and preparation, I’ve learned that over the years that if you want to be successful you have to have a plan. The old adage, “Fail to plan, plan to fail” certainly applies. I believe going back to my early days in sales, one of my critical areas of success was breaking down my business, understanding where our differentiated value was in whatever particular company or technology that I was representing and making sure that we had a go-to-market plan over the course of the year.
Also, one of my strengths has always been my willingness to challenge myself and to prepare. I think preparation is underrated in sales, I see that all the time where we show up to a meeting with a customer. There’s a lot of research you can go do and be prepared to walk in to your customers with some solutions to their problems rather than showing up and asking them what their problems are, for example. Again, I know that’s kind of mom and apple pie, I’m sure probably most of the folks you have on this interview says the same thing. Preparation is one of the things that I pride myself on.
Fred Diamond: That comes up not infrequently, of course but you have to be able to execute and one thing that we heard over the course is a lot of sales professionals – and I won’t even use the word “professionals” in this regard – will practice in front of the customer. Of course you’re always looking for something that’s going to be an angle per se, but showing up and practicing as compared to preparing for the call, truly understanding. A lot of the great Sales Game Changers that we’ve interviewed have talked about how they put more time into the preparation. One question we usually ask is how do you become a better listener? Something that not infrequently comes out. When I ask that question, a lot of the Sales Game Changers will say, “By preparing” knowing that, understanding the challenge.
Chris Townsend: One more point in that key strength and I guess this is another area that you have to have if you want to go into this career is you just have to enjoy being with people. You have to get excited about helping your customer solve their problems and you have to really enjoy immersing yourself in the challenges your customers have and solving those challenges for them and truly care about it. I think that’s probably the overarching thing that I do is I really like to spend time with my customers understanding what the problems are and how to solve them.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us about an impactful sales mentor or two and how they impacted your career?
Chris Townsend: The first answer is going to be a little corny but it’s absolutely true. My father was a small business owner, he worked for GE for 20 years and left GE when we were teenagers and bought a small business, an auto part store in a small town in upstate New York. At the time I did not appreciate the courage that that takes to go do something like that with two teenage kids and start your own business, but he bought a business. Talking about the impact of customer service, here we’ve got this nap auto part store in a 2,000 person town in upstate New York and all of our customers – let’s say the local town or village with the guys driving the snow plows or working on the school buses – were also the local police officers.
Everybody wore a lot of different hats working with all the local garages and if you alienated any of those customers, it was a meaningful material impact to my father’s business, number one. On the flip side of that, you build good relationships with all the folks locally in the community and you might get out of a speeding ticket once in a while too as a kid but all kidding aside, I learned the importance of putting the customer first. That was always my dad’s focus as a business owner, continues to be to this day and his business has grown significantly since then, owns a few stores now. It was always about providing the customer top notch service.
Fred Diamond: As a matter of fact, do you know Mark Weber, used to run NetApp? We interviewed him a couple months ago, he also talked about his father, that his father was in sales and the role that his father played so that’s great. Chris, what are the two biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
Chris Townsend: The most important thing we do is hire the best people and it’s increasingly difficult to find great people. Not because there’s not great people out there, it’s because there’s so much competition for top talent, especially in this market. We’re always looking to bring on the best people, hiring the best people makes my job so much easier.
The second challenge I would say, and this may be unique to federal is just the arm’s length relationship, we have to have some times with the federal customer because of procurements and other things. We can work very close with our customer to develop solutions to solve their mission problems but through some of the procurement processes and third party, third order of facts often we can’t bring the best solution to solve our federal customer’s mission problems.
That’s always a challenge and then I’ll add a third, I know you said two but the third is really elevating the team’s focus to being that trusted partner to our customer. I know that again, “trusted adviser” is an overused term but it’s really understanding how to add value beyond the sale. It’s not always about going in and selling our technology but really understanding how to solve the customer’s problems and if you do that, everything else comes along with that. Sometimes there’s not a sale attached to it and you have to think a little bit more strategically and in our instant gratification culture it’s hard to get people to think about that.
Fred Diamond: Symantec of course is a well-known brand in technology, it’s one of the leading companies in the history of technology. What does a great rep look like who would work for a company like Symantec? You mentioned obviously some general things here, but what would a great rep look like? What kind of features, characteristics, etc.?
Chris Townsend: Self-motivated, committed to the success of the customer, good communicator is critically important, disciplined in terms of planning and great self-discipline in terms of how they manage their time and engagement. I had an opportunity in my career about 15 years ago to be in an overlay role and I’d never been a sales overlay before. What that did is it allowed me to work with a lot of different account managers and see different sale styles.
As an individual contributor you often think that the way you do it and you’re successful, everybody else must do it the same way. What I learned was there’s a range of different approaches that account managers take that can be equally successful, some are very technical, some aren’t as technical but the focus on the customer, number one. Number two is the ability to align resources around your business, the best account managers are the ones that have the engineering teams working for them, have their partners working for them, have the business units working for them. Get all these people aligned to their business and aligned to their success by making those folks that are supporting them successful as well. Those are two critical factors that differentiate the best reps from the good reps.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you take us back to the #1 specific sale success or win from your career that you’re most proud of?
Chris Townsend: That’s a great question and that’s an interview question I ask. It’s always a red flag for me when I ask that question in an interview and somebody talks about a renewal that they did, but there’s a number of those in my career. I’ll highlight one during my time at Cisco because it was so impactful to the customer’s mission. Obviously, Cisco provided most of the networking equipment to the department of veteran’s affairs, I ran the healthcare vertical when I was at Cisco. We provided most of the networking equipment to the VA, the VA had a new CIO come in, a guy named Roger Baker at the time. They were very focused on how to leverage IT to support the mission of the VA and at the time we had a lot of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan that had post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury.
They lived in rural areas so they didn’t have access to the mental health counselors they needed because most of those were very highly treatable maladies. As a result, we had these rates of substance abuse and suicide, spousal abuse increasing in these rural areas for these vets because they weren’t getting the access to care. We took a look at that and figured out how we could use high definition video to extend the perimeter of care out to the clinics. The VA’s got 150 medical centers where most of the mental health counselors reside but they have about 1,100 clinics to extend care out to these people but they didn’t have the mental health counselors out there.
Long story short, we built a high definition video architecture – and this certainly wasn’t me, it was the entire team effort. We had our partners involved and a lot of folks within Cisco involved in this, and we’d acquired a company called Tandberg that was doing a lot of this stuff already that we expanded on. We essentially implemented this whole rural care initiative by extending the perimeter of care using high definition video. Beyond just the mental health aspect of that, we were also able to do by implementing some IP enabled healthcare telemetry equipment like stethoscopes and dermatology cameras and other things. Really saved a lot of time for the veterans that were having to drive into medical centers to get routine skin cancers removed from their hands, that kind of thing. They can now do that out in the clinics with local support in these high def dermatology camps, for example.
The reason that I highlight that is #1, it was a use of a technology to really impact the mission of an agency but it also dramatically improved the lives of the veterans and it was also leading edge on tele-health and all the healthcare industry. That was something I was really excited about, went up to the Hill, got some funding for that. It was a great team effort, it took a couple of years, they’re still rolling out a lot of that capability and expanding upon it. That was a big one for me.
Fred Diamond: Chris, I want to follow up with that in two regards. One is you talked about the challenge that your customer had with their customer and that’s something that comes up not infrequently at the Sales Game Changers podcast. Not just how I can help you but how I can help you in your regards with your customer where the value comes in. We have a lot of Sales Game Changers listening around the globe who are in the early stage or early-middle stage of their career. You just talked about a very specific challenge that you uncovered with your customer and you got very deep with it, it was probably a couple years ago. Give us a tip or two, we talked about preparation before but talk a little bit about getting deep to understand the true challenges of your customer.
Chris Townsend: Great question. When Secretary Shinseki at the time came in to run the VA, he had put out a list of top 10 priorities for the VA. I remember the #1 was getting all the homeless veterans off the street which was a tremendous goal and really impactful, One was these veterans that are returning that are having these issues associated with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, helping reduce the rates of spouse abuse, suicide, substance abuse and all that. As a team, we looked at these top 10 priorities and started to check off, “What do we think we can affect with our technology, with IT? If we bring in some partners, where can we affect these?”
Then we started to hone that down to where we could really have an impact, we brought in some healthcare experts and actually had them shadow some of the clinicians within the VA to understand the work flow of the customer. You asked about folks that would ask if I push them on things, this is one of the things I really push people on is we built a reference architecture.
Think about the amount of time and preparation that went into this ahead of actually the customer investing or buying in any of this technology. It was a year and a half of work where we mapped out the VA’s existing environment, where we think they could go to solve these problems and then this whole approach of how to get there. We did it from an industry best practices vendor agnostic as much as we could because as much as we’d like them to use the technology at the time with Cisco, we really believe that this was an opportunity to solve a problem for the customer, Cisco technology or not. We built a plan and this thing expanded and expanded about a hundred pages by the time we were done with input from the customer. We did it in collaboration with the VA and we delivered it back to the VA as a road map. They didn’t do all of it in the way that we proposed but ended up doing a lot of it and again, it really had a mission impact but back to preparation and thinking through how you solve a problem, much more impactful doing that.
At the Cisco office right down the street we had stood up two high def systems to mock a remote rural care environment and we had the CIO, the VA come in and some other folks on his team. He sat in one room and they sat in the other and we showed how this would all work. We had some folks dressed up in white coats like docs and model the whole thing out and demonstrated this. A lot of preparation went into it, but we brought a lot of value to the customer as a result.
Fred Diamond: What’s interesting about that story also – and that’s a great story – is there’s the old adage that if you help write the proposal as compared to waiting for the proposal to come out. That applies to not just federal but other markets, too. If the customer comes to you and says they need pricing, then there’s no chance you’re going to win the deal. You got in there early on, you wrote that hundred page document you said and you didn’t get every piece of it but obviously you gave the customer the frame work and of course Cisco was one of the only places they could go for the solution.
Chris Townsend: Absolutely right, and that old adage, if you’re not helping structure the requirements then you’re not going to win is absolutely the case. Reps that are out there just responding to RFI’s and RFP’s, you’re too late and with our federal customers you’re probably a year too late.
Fred Diamond: Did you ever question to yourself, “Sales is just too hard, it’s really not for me”?
Chris Townsend: No, I haven’t. I really enjoy sales, I enjoy the fact that you’re immediately rewarded by your own work and you’re really in control of your own destiny. I’ve always really enjoyed that about sales, I’ve never really looked back and wish I had gone into another career.
Fred Diamond: Chris, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the junior selling professionals listening around the globe to help them take their career to the next level?
Chris Townsend: A couple of things. First, have the courage to take on something that is out of your comfort zone and then when you do it, commit to being successful. Put out of your mind that you could fail and plan what you need to do to be successful and then just execute your plan with passion and commitment. It’s all about hard work and preparation, and if you go into something and say, “I’m going to succeed at this at all cost, I’m going to figure it out, I’m going to do a great job and put a plan in place to do it” in most things you’ll succeed.
Fred Diamond: What are some things you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Chris Townsend: I read a lot. I’m always reading a lot of books, more now on leadership than sales but always read a lot of sales books, learned a lot from that. I try to learn as much as I can from other folks. We were talking earlier, Fred about some of the other people that have been on these broadcasts of yours in the podcast. I’ve worked with a lot of those folks, I always try to learn from other people but it goes back to what I said earlier. We get paid in two ways and if we’re always learning and improving then we’re going to continue to move forward.
Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Chris Townsend: I talked about this a bit earlier. We’re evolving from a product-based company to a solutions-based company and going through that evolution and changing the culture here to ensure that we’re not focused on maintaining our business but expanding it and growing it really shifting into that security trusted adviser that our customers need.
Fred Diamond: Chris, sales is hard, people don’t return your calls or your emails. Again, why have you continued? What is it specifically about a sales career that has kept you going?
Chris Townsend: I’ll address that quickly. You certainly have to have a level of resilience and commitment to success and not let those things bother you. I will say, if you have a product whether it’s technology or anything else that’s relevant and important to your customers to solve problems, they generally will return your calls. That was a lesson I learned early in my sales career, I had worked for a company – I won’t name them. I was there for about three years, put a lot of time in, we had some initial success but the market had turned and our technology had become less relevant than it was before. I actually had one of my customers, he was a Chief Information Security Officer and he took me out to lunch. This was obviously before I was in fed when I was living in Denver covering enterprise accounts. He said, “Chris, for a change I want to take you out to lunch.”
He took me out and he said, “My team and I all agree you’re the best sales rep we ever worked with and we really appreciate how often you’re here and you know our business. You’re always spending time with us.” I said, “That’s great, but why aren’t you buying more of my stuff? I saw stacks of my competitor’s equipment in the door when we walked out.”
He said, “I’ve got a responsibility to my leadership and you don’t have the best technology. I need to go out and invest in the best technology.” I know I’m a little bit off of your question, Fred but the lesson I had learned there especially in the technology space is if you have the best technology, your customers will return your calls. If you have technology that’s not relevant and it’s not going to make our customers successful, they probably won’t.
Fred Diamond: What’s also impactful about that is that you had this relationship with your customer who was willing to tell you this. You said he took you out to lunch where of course everybody who’s listening to this podcast is thinking, “How can I figure out a way to get more time with my customer so that I can essentially talk to them about what I do or at least continue to develop the relationship?” The moments you have with your customers are gold, obviously so it’s pretty impactful that he took you aside and told you what you’re doing well but, “Here’s why we’re not a customer today.”
Chris Townsend: It changed the course of my career to a degree. After that I started looking for – it seems obvious, now – companies that had leading tech with real differentiated value that could help our customers solve problems. No matter how good you are and how often you’re in front of the customers and how good you are building relationships, if you can’t help them succeed, we’ve all got jobs to do, you have to be able to bring tech that’s really helping them solve a problem.
Fred Diamond: A lot of the Sales Game Changers we’ve spoken about, they’ve worked like you’ve worked for Cisco and now Symantec, these are two of the biggest brands in the history of technology and there’s a reason for that. There’s a reason why people return your phone calls when the VP of Federal for Symantec is calling. Again, Chris Townsend, I want to thank you so much for the great content, for the great insights, this was a great interview. Why don’t you give us one final thought to inspire our listeners today?
Chris Townsend: Take the risk, get into sales, it’s a great career, it’s very rewarding. There’s this negative connotation that’s around sales that we’re out there trying to push things on our customers that they don’t want, that’s the furthest thing from the truth. We’re actually in there helping our customers advance their business and we can be relevant to the mission and be a part of some really impactful – especially in federal, because the mission is so important. We can be really impactful to our customers and helping them be successful, that’s what professional sales is about. It’s not in there trying to sell products that people don’t need.