EPISODE 140: ViON Sales Leader Dave Kushner Speaks to the Market Shift from Cloud First to Cloud Smart and How Top Sales Professionals Can Flourish in this Transformation
DAVE’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Be humble because sales is a humbling experience. There’ll be times that you’re on Cloud 9 and deals are flowing and things are happening and everything’s going right, and there are times you’re wondering if anyone is actually going to call you back and engage with you. Never forgo your principles in those down times or the trust that somebody has in you. The best scenario for a salesperson frankly is to be humble but hungry for success.”
Dave Kushner is the VP for Federal Sales at ViON Corporation.
Prior to coming over to ViON, he held sales leadership positions EMC, Legato and OTG.
Find Dave on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us a little more about what you sell today? Tell us a little bit about what excites you about that.
Dave Kushner: ViON has been around for 39 years and for the last 16 of those years we have been the pioneer of what is called the as-a-Service model for the federal government, essentially allowing our customers to consume technology in a cloud-like manner utilizing OPEX funds versus CAPEX. People actually look at me sideways when I tell them how long we’ve been doing the as-a-Service model and I usually tell them that we were doing cloud before cloud was cool. Today in our federal government, there’s such a need to modernize and with so many legacy systems in play it’s important for us to work with our customers to figure out the highest priority elements of their business to modernize.
With our data center as-a-Service model, we provide our customers the flexibility to modernize as slow or as fast as they’re willing to go since it’s a true cloud-like consumption model either behind their firewall or in a hybrid model. They don’t over provision, they don’t over buy, they instead modernize at their own pace and customers appreciate the way that we do business that way, and frankly so do our partners. In the federal space you’ve got new technology coming into play. You’ve got changing work force needs in the federal market, you’ve got budget constraints, you’ve got the proliferation of every conversation that I have includes cloud and we now talk about cloud smart instead of cloud first because for our customers, it’s not one dimensional, it’s not one cloud fits all. It’s a hybrid or multi-cloud approach that provides customers the flexibility to keep up with the data volumes and manage complexity and costs.
ViON’s in a unique position to provide solid answers to this approach. We have the past performance and frankly it’s funny, I usually talk about our as-a-Service model, we’ve been doing it so long we know the good, the bad and the ugly. To answer your question, what excites me is that our customers lean on ViON Corporation to help make these changes easier which is why we’re seeing a growing demand for our data center as-a-Service model, our ViON marketplace, our cloud migration services, our managed services and being able to couple all that with our data center as-a-Service model. Technology is always going to be evolving, but our as-a-Service model allows those IT leaders to be more agile, to respond to their user demands and drive mission success faster tapping into the best available technologies that we can bring to the table without compromising their budget. That’s really one of the things that certainly excites me.
Fred Diamond: Dave, I have a quick question for you. Again, you work for some of the best storage companies in history, EMC, of course now you’re at ViON, Legato and OTG. I’m going to ask you a separate question. You mentioned here and you kept mentioning in the introduction the as-a-Service model. There are a lot of people listening to the podcast that have had to shift from selling on premise type products to services. What are some of the major changes you’ve seen as a sales leader now that you’re in the as-a-Service business as compared to historically where we’ve sold products into a company?
Dave Kushner: Some of the major changes is just how they think about the consumption of technology. As I mentioned before, the over buying, I would walk into customers and see racks upon racks of stuff just sitting there not even being used yet because from a budgetary perspective, “I had the money, I needed to spend it now” and, “We’re not turning this on yet but I now have it.” Little do they know, the maintenance and warranty clock has started on that equipment, on those solutions, that infrastructure and they just spent money on things that they didn’t need at that time yet. The actual proliferation of cloud has actually helped us with contracting officers and financial folks to be able to truly understand what does it mean to utilize OPEX funds in a consumption model versus me going out and buying because I had money and I know I’m going to have this need maybe 3, 6, 9, maybe 12 months down the road but I had to do it now. I’ve seen a mind shift or a change in mindset for organizations that truly value being able to consume and adjust in time manner.
Fred Diamond: How about from the sales side? How have you had to adjust, how have you worked with your teams to adjust when you’ve sold items now to the as-a-Service model?
Dave Kushner: The teams that we’ve got, the guys and the salespeople we’ve brought in here have varied backgrounds. There’ve been folks in the IT side, there’s been folks from the OEM side, there’ve been folks from other partners and resellers in the DC area. One of the things that they have certainly looked at is the value that the ViON’s as-a-Service model really brings to the table. They get excited about that because it allows us to have a very unique conversation rather than just being able to say, “You’ve got stuff that you want to buy, I’ve got stuff that I can sell you.”
It’s a deeper conversation around mission requirements, around budget, around operational requirements that they have, around technology requirements that they have that get our salespeople excited to go have those deeper level conversations rather than, “You want to buy something and I have the capability to sell you some stuff.”
Fred Diamond: That’s a great answer, Dave. There’s a lot of themes that we keep hearing through the Sales Game Changers podcast, you just used the word mindset before but one of them is the need today to bring even more value than you’ve ever had to bring before. I liked the notion there of how you answered that question with the deeper conversations to truly get to the heart of what the customer’s trying to do and what they’re trying to solve. You’ve had a great career in sales, how did you first get into sales as a career?
Dave Kushner: Actually, two stories come to mind. I started my work career at 16 years old as a bus boy and then earned an opportunity as a waiter when I turned 18. I will tell you, the food industry really exposes you to all types of personalities and provides you with a classroom on a daily basis to better read people, how to connect with them. I got really good at reading folks, being able to upsell things and it also made me really understand how to take care of a customer. I honestly think everyone in sales or who wants to go in sales should work for tips in the food industry at least once in their life, it’s a great experience.
The second story actually is one when I was in college. One of my last classes, my spring semester in my senior year, we had a business class that essentially all 30 people, seniors like me, were basically failing the class. It was a new professor at the college that didn’t have tenure and I began to get to know this professor through the semester to figure out how to get through the class and graduate in 4 years. What I found out in getting to know her and reading her a little bit more deeply was she was a very kind, goodhearted lady but she was just as eager to impress her peers in her quest for tenure. A week before the final I made it a point to run into her “accidentally” and have a conversation about the class that everyone was failing, that we have the upcoming final and let’s just say I persuaded her in that an entire class being failed probably wouldn’t look too good for her in the prospects of tenure.
Fred Diamond: Interesting. What kind of restaurant was it that you worked at as a bus boy and then a waiter?
Dave Kushner: It was a Red Lobster.
Fred Diamond: Do you still go back to Red Lobster?
Dave Kushner: I sometimes do. [Laughs]
Fred Diamond: Tell us a little more about you specifically. What are you an expert in? Tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
Dave Kushner: As a solid B or B- student, Fred, I definitely don’t profess to be an expert in anything in particular. I truly enjoy building sales teams, but I think being able to work across and build consensus across an organization is something that I take great pride in, to be able to drive sales forward. I’ve been at large organizations like EMC, smaller organizations that were growing rapidly like OTG Software and there are a lot of qualities that you use both in sales to a customer and also driving consensus internally at an organization.
Being able to listen to all the points of view within your organization and working to be an ambassador to those various groups to address what their concerns, what they’re trying to do and then you have to merge those various points of view to help your organization transform itself into what you envision will drive the ball forward. I’ve learned that consensus building within the organization is a team effort and it’s important to over-communicate and make sure everyone understands what does success look like.
Then I take it upon myself to lead that effort to the best of my ability to be able to drive sales forward for my organization, whether it was ViON, EMC, OTG, didn’t really matter. I always felt it was very important to be able to build that consensus across the organization to help drive sales.
Fred Diamond: Dave, every Sales Game Changer we’ve interviewed on the podcast has had some great mentors along the way that have helped them get their career to this level. Why don’t you tell us about a mentor or two and how they impacted your career?
Dave Kushner: You actually interviewed him a couple of weeks ago, I think and now he’s going to get a big head because I’m going to mention him yet again on your podcast but Randy Cochran was the first sales leader that I had that didn’t lecture you on what you were doing wrong, right, “here’s how to do it”, but he coached you up. He was very good at being able to guide you rather than lecture. At the time that I worked for him at PSINet and InterCon I didn’t know a sales plan from a dining plan, but Randy was instrumental in teaching me key lessons that you and I will actually discuss in a few minutes when we talk about what are the important things that I want to get across to junior salespeople.
I’ve stayed in touch with Randy across the years, got career advice from him, was able to bounce different things from him throughout my career. I would say, having a sales mentor is key not only from a tactical business perspective being able to go, “I got this deal that I’m working on and I’m kind of stuck” but also from a long term career perspective. When you associate yourself with someone who’s enjoyed a long successful career in sales, you try to learn as much as you can from that person. What I did through the years was I found myself merging things that I learned from my mentors with things that I’ve learned from my own career. You merge that from personal experience and it served me well.
Fred Diamond: That’s a great episode we had with Randy Cochran, we’ll provide a link in the show notes but a lot of great examples when you went back there. We’ve actually had a bunch of people from EMC that we’ve interviewed on the podcast as well, Christian Woodward and Bill Rowan. That was probably a great place to learn some great sales skills, great sales culture there as well. Dave, what are the two biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
Dave Kushner: First of all, I think hiring top talent. That’s my #1, I’m constantly selling myself, my sales leadership, my sales philosophy and ViON Corporation as a whole, as a great place to be. We were voted one of the top 100 places to work in the DC area several years in a row. I pride myself in hiring the right people that fit our culture, that will bring a certain expertise and not just hire what I call the “right now” person. You want to try to hire the right person. I’ve actually passed on hiring really good reps because I feel like our CEO, Tom Frana and our president, Jeff Henry rely on me to bring the best talent possible to a business that we’re all very passionate about.
I recently brought back a key resource who left ViON a couple years ago but has returned to the family and it’s interesting because there’s many reasons that people leave organizations, but when they want to return I think it says a lot about the culture we’re building and that we’re continuing to build here at ViON.
The second challenge, I’d say getting the most out of our reps. Getting them to understand that there is an entire team behind them and working behind them to help ensure their success. As I talked about earlier, gaining true collaboration across the organization, across ViON or across any organization, really. Then getting these folks to perform at their highest level and engage customers at that deeper level that I mentioned to understand what they need, whether it’s helping our DOD in intel customers from a mission perspective or helping our federal civilian customers. It’s very interesting because I try to help these guys really connect with their customers and frankly, qualify in or out quickly. Is it something that ViON corporation can really provide to that customer and will it have meaningful value to them, their mission, their organization? If it doesn’t, let’s move on and make sure that we save their time as well as ours.
Fred Diamond: The ability to quickly qualify is something that comes up not infrequently as well, so that you make the best use of your time and we always say the next best thing behind a quick yes is a quick no so that you’re not wasting time going after the wrong types of customers. It’s interesting, you mentioned the company’s been around for 39 somewhat years, there must have been so many transformations, especially over the last couple years as you’ve moved to the service model. Why don’t you take us back to the #1 specific success or win from your career that you’re most proud of?
Dave Kushner: One of the best I think I had was a software OEM deal that I did at OTG, that I worked for, frankly, two and a half, almost three years on with a large healthcare IT provider. It was a company called Cerner Corporation that’s one of the largest healthcare IT providers out there today. The reason I’m proud of it is because it took a long time to get it done and it made me appreciate the need to develop patience when you’re in a long sale cycle. It also made me appreciate the value of developing meaningful relationships with your partner, your prospect, your customer, whatever you want to call it, to separate yourself from the competition doing the little things.
Spending time with them outside the office, knowing their wife and kids’ names, birthdays, those are little things that we as individuals appreciate. You remember that person, they remember something about you. That deal also made me understand that keeping your focus and having a plan was key. I was always asking in this long sale cycle, once we’re successful here, with this aspect of the – whether it’s the evaluation or the negotiation around this contract or this particular area of the contract – what’s the next step? What do we need to do now? Whether that next step was a technical hurdle or whether it was a contract, it’s always important and it made me learn the importance of making progress on a daily and weekly and monthly basis.
No matter how little the progress may be, you’re moving the ball forward. It’s the little things that you can do to build momentum and drive a deal home. I developed that relationship for years and still stay in touch with a lot of folks that we worked with on them.
Fred Diamond: Dave, before we get to our break, we have a lot of younger sales professionals listening around the world to today’s podcast. You just mentioned that deal took you almost 3 years to make and you talked about how it taught you patience. We have people here, millennials in their 20’s who are looking at the next day let alone, and I lie what you just said. You saw whenever there was a progress that you acknowledged the progress. Can you give a little more insight to the people listening on today’s podcast on how they can be monitoring that, how they can be visualizing that to ensure that they keep the course? If someone’s sitting on the podcast saying, “It’s going to take me 3 years to get my biggest sales deal?” they may move onto a different industry before it even happens.
Dave Kushner: The challenge is that not everybody should be in sales, frankly. I always thought early in my career, “Is this something that I can really do?” I had a lot of success early on which really got me rolling and some of it was because of hard work, some of it was luck, probably more luck than hard work, but I’ll take it. You have tough days in sales, you have tough days in business and life in general and there’s nothing more rewarding to me than trying to change the game, changing your attitude, making sure you’re trying to make the next day a success. Whether we do that or I do that by making sure I serve my customers and partners the best way I can, or thinking of a new way or a new solution to a problem that’s been playing you, it’s a rewarding experience. It’s funny, I’ve made mistakes in the past, I’ll continue to make them but its key is how you learn from them. Just be humble, sales is a very humbling experience.
Fred Diamond: Dave, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the selling professionals listening to today’s podcast to help them take their career to the next level?
Dave Kushner: Fred, as I mentioned that long sale cycle before, what I learned was that planning was key. Being able to make sure that not only you know about that person’s background and getting to know them at a more personal level but also understanding the agency or the industry as well. It shows you did your research, it shows you know what you’re talking about, you came in prepared and you are somebody that they’re not going to mind listening to because you actually did your research.
Being able to also create and use sales plans as a map to where you want to go. That was like I said when I was talking earlier, when I started my career I didn’t know a sales plan from a dining plan and that certainly helped me be able to focus and crystallize what I was trying to accomplish. I learned very early on you’ve got to be flexible in meetings but you have to plan not only before the meeting, but plan every meeting you walk into and execute that plan.
There are going to be times that your prospect or your customer are going to throw you curve balls, you’ve got to be quick on your feet and be honest. Say, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I will be back to you in 48 hours with a full answer and anybody else that you need to talk to, to be able to put that issue to bed.”
The other thing that I think is important from a sales perspective is to never burn bridges. We talked before you came in here, this is a very large industry but it’s a very small industry. You never burn bridges, folks in federal agencies moving around all the time and if you’re associated with something that you didn’t deliver or a promise you didn’t keep, that’s going to stay with you, that’s going to stay with your organization. Your reputation is very important, so you always keep your word. I know that you’ve probably heard this 700 times, but for junior reps listening is key. It’s funny, I learned early on if I found myself in a meeting and I was bursting at the seams to interrupt the person who was basically telling me all his challenges and giving me gold, I would grab my coffee or a water or something and just take a slow drink. I made it a point to make sure I didn’t interrupt him and kept listening.
Fred Diamond: That’s a great strategy. One thing that comes up not infrequently in the Sales Game Changers podcast is the whole notion that you need to be a much more effective listener, especially when you’re early in your career. You just want to blurt that out, “Here’s how I can solve your problem” and I ask people all the time, give us an advice on how you, Sales Game Changer, can be a better listener. I like that approach, people out there listening, pick up your water, pick up your cup of coffee, put it in your hand, take a nice, long drip and let the customer talk. A lot of times, the customer doesn’t really get that much of an opportunity to talk. We talked about your relationship with your spouse before who’s in sales, but most people who aren’t married to IT leaders want to talk about the ins and outs of bits and bites of the latest version of whatever they’re bringing in. It’s an opportunity for them to also talk about what their challenges are and I like that strategy about allowing them to continue to talk and continue to listen.
Dave Kushner: There’s one last thing. The folks getting into sales, I have always been a very big proponent of learning from the sales folks that have been in it a long time who are successful in your organization. One of the things that I’ve always encouraged my reps to do is find those guys, find those people whether it’s a lady that’s been doing it for 25 years or a gentleman who’s seen success. As them to present to you and how do they tell the story of ViON Corporation or whatever organization you’re with? Then present back to them. It’s the hardest thing to present to somebody that is your peer in the company, but it also accelerates your learning curve. That is one thing, that person could also be a mentor or turn into a mentor for one of those junior sales reps.
Fred Diamond: On those lines, what are some things you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Dave Kushner: I do a fair amount of meeting with my partners, our OEM partners in the federal space and public sector space to make sure that I understand and know what their challenges are. What’s going on in the market, all the ones that we do business with, all of our partners, the Dell EMC and Nutanix, NetApp, Pure, Hortonworks now Cloudera, Hitachi Vantara, Federal Microsoft, IBM, all of them, meet with all of them. I even meet with other partners similar to ViON in the industry to understand what their view of the market is.
I do a lot of attending dinners that have end user customers at where they’re talking about whether it’s their operational, technical, financial challenges and I try to do a lot of engaging with my sales reps and really coaching them up as well and not preaching to them or lecturing them. I’ve made a ton of mistakes in selling, I try to impart some of that wisdom that I’ve learned, especially the ones who are younger, malleable, willing to learn from someone who has had success and has made mistakes along the way as well.
Then in the mornings, we mentioned listening to the podcast in the morning, research over coffee just reviewing the latest news and events. I want to make sure that I am aware of what’s going on the IT space, and the IT space in general is ever-changing. It’s almost a job in and of itself to keep up and make sure you stay relevant to your customers as they advance their mission in IT transformation.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success.
Dave Kushner: Good question. Last year, ViON launched our ViON marketplace. Essentially, it’s a single platform portal for our as-a-Service customers to provision, manage, report on usage, maintain governance over the technology solutions that they’re consuming from us as-a-Service, all from a single pane of glass, if you will. Customers like it because they can actually shop for what they need, Amazon like experience, compare solutions and things within what ViON can provide to them and then choose the best solution that’s going to solve their issue and consume that technology as-a-Service either behind their firewall, in another data center.
The bottom line is this helps reduce the administration time and helps the IT leaders that we work with and our customer manage the SLA’s that they have with their customers, and maintain complete control. It also allows our customers the capability to modernize their technology infrastructure, like we talked about, in a just-in-time capacity, not over buying. Now we’re working on the delivery of a cloud platform that has workload provisioning, management and orchestration giving our customers an enhanced and customized experience to manage and create workloads both in a private or hybrid public cloud instances, so while they continue to consume the technology as-a-Service behind their firewall they can also do it in a public cloud or as we talked about, in a multi-cloud fashion.
The goal is for ViON to help our federal agency organizations to be able to manage all their cloud instances, their technology consumption and workloads all from one portal with orchestration. More to come on that, we actually just announced that to our sales team at my kick off two weeks ago and it was well received. Even though ViON is a 39 year old company, we understand the value and the importance to transform ourselves to best address our customer requirements and the hybrid multi-cloud strategy is definitely the future of our federal customers.
Fred Diamond: What is it about sales as a career that has kept you going? Tell us a little bit about why have you continued as a sales leader and why you’ve made this your career’s work.
Dave Kushner: It’s simple: I love what I do and the fact that it changes daily and almost hourly certainly doesn’t make it hard, it makes it easy to love. Whether it’s working on a deal with one of our customers to advance a mission requirement while making sure it fits into their budget or strategizing on an opportunity with one of my reps, I just enjoy it. I enjoy and I’m lucky, actually that I work with so many top notch people both here at ViON and also across our partner community. When you surround yourself with good people, good things happen. Frankly, the bottom line is if I can’t be optimistic in February of a new year, I better go find something else to do [laughs]. Frankly, I could be more optimistic for what lies ahead for ViON and our federal team.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you give us one final thought to inspire our listeners today?
Dave Kushner: As I mentioned earlier, be humble because sales is a humbling experience. There’ll be times that you’re on cloud 9 and deals are flowing and things are happening and everything’s going right, and there are times you’re wondering if anyone is actually going to call you back and engage with you. You’re going to lose deals, actually you’re going to lose a lot of deals, you’ll lose more than you win but my one thing is to never forgo your principles in those down times or trust that somebody has in you. You’ve got to trust in your ability that if you’re doing all you can, you’re making that extra effort, you’re working hard, you’re working smart, whether it’s that call that you don’t feel like making but you know you should or that other meeting that you need to attend because you had a busy day, just get it done, show progress. The best scenario for a salesperson frankly is to be humble but hungry for success. I think that’s the thing that has made me successful.