EPISODE 034: How a Natural Sense of Curiosity Has Driven Neustar’s Sales Leader Dorean Kass to the Top
Dorean Kass is the VP of sales for analytics solutions at Neustar, Inc, a trusted neutral provider of real-time information services based in McLean, VA. Dorean leads strategic sales, channel initiatives, account management, and inside sales focused on marketing analytics and fraud risk and compliance solutions.
Dorean and his team help top brands across multiple verticals improve risk mitigation strategies, operational efficiency, acquisition, and consumer insight in real-time across any channel. Prior to Neustar, Dorean spent six years in the tech consulting and software space. He received an undergraduate degree in political science and economics from Stanford University.
Find Dorean on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: Dorean, tell us what you sell today and what excites you about that.
Dorean Kass: I run the analytics solutions group. Neustar has grown up quite tremendously over the past 15 or 20 years or so. It actually started in legacy telecom infrastructure, managing local number portability. I was part of an acquisition that Neustar made to move into information services when they acquired TARGUSinfo back in November of 2011.
Today my group focuses on selling identity solutions to help drive everything from marketing effectiveness to digital marketing activation measurement, resource allocation, and digital attribution. We go all the way through fraud and risk applications, whether that’s to verify the linkages of identity for things like credit-card originations or card-not-present transactions or even to just verify that the name and phone belonged to someone before you make an outline dial, both in terms of driving operational efficiency but also in terms of making sure you don’t create risk around things like the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).
Really, any way in which verifying and ensuring that for the person you’re trying to reach, all their data goes together, and maximizing that interaction across any channel, that’s what my team is responsible for. I think the most exciting part about that is there’s something new every day.
But we don’t really sell solutions. In fact, part of what I’ll talk about today is that in any true consultative engagement, it’s not about what you sell. It’s about the problems that you solve. Because we have so many different capabilities and because our insights are so unique in the marketplace, we’re really able to problem-solve and diagnose challenges for our business, the businesses that we work with, and then make recommendations on what will prove to be the most impactful.
Fred Diamond: How did you get into sales as a career?
Dorean Kass: I started in management and IT consulting and had somewhat of a stigma associated with sales because I wasn’t familiar with the notion of consultative sales. I think I was more familiar with transactional sales, widget sales, more of the used-car sales type of approach. Sales is not a one-trick pony. Consultative sales is very much like consulting from the standpoint of needing to understand the business challenges before you can earn the right to make recommendations.
Sales, unlike other functional responsibilities, can either be a very high-paying, difficult job or a very low-paying, easy job. You control a lot of that. Being able to focus my efforts on something that had a direct contribution to my ability to be successful and earn was ultimately the reason I got into sales. I was afforded a very good opportunity to get into a true consulting type of sales engagement, which was the best fit for my skill set.
Fred Diamond: What was your first job, technically, in sales?
Dorean Kass: I was an individual contributor selling fairly similar identity-type capabilities of far less sophistication than where they are today, focusing on consumer-facing markets and financial services. It’s that experience of carrying a bag here that I think gives me some pretty unique insight as it relates to how I manage the team going forward and how we set the strategy in terms of where we go next.
Fred Diamond: What were some of those lessons? What were some of the key lessons that you learned when you first moved into sales or maybe even from your consulting side that have carried with you today?
Dorean Kass: I think from a consulting perspective it’s primarily around the need to evangelize the capability and to make recommendations and listen reflectively and actively. I think quite often salespeople try to find any opportunity to fill the silence or go in with a preconceived agenda or a mission of what they want to try and focus on. They don’t adjust based upon the specific needs of the client.
You should always be prepared, and you should always have a perspective on what you want to try to cover. But based upon what the client is saying, you have to be able to adjust. I think that’s a key lesson learned and not necessarily something that I see everybody doing.
But just the experience of being an individual contributor and the challenges associated with driving a sales engagement from start to finish, I think there are unique components of that that are relevant for whatever it is you end up doing, even if you’re having a completely separate discussion and a completely separate functional responsibility internally. Everybody’s selling. There are books like The Accidental Salesperson and about the skill set needed to convey your point effectively regardless of whether you’re actually in sales or not.
Fred Diamond: I like that. Listen reflectively and actively. We’ve interviewed so many people on the Sales Game Changers Podcast that certain themes continue to come up. One of them is the elimination of the “show up and throw up” approach. You need to understand what your customer is dealing with, what their challenges are. Tell us more specifically about yourself. What are you specifically an expert in?
Dorean Kass: I think growing up in data and the identity world, this notion of identity and the use of big data for unique applications, data science, and connecting all these fragmented data points for purposes beyond the original intent of the data, that’s really what I’m expert in. I’ve grown up in a space where initially it was just about data points, and then it turned into solutions, and it turned into the data from the data. That’s really most exciting about what I do. You start off with the concept of the data that you have, but then you translate that into a use case based upon the insights that you’re gleaning from that data. I like to say that I was working on big-data stuff before big data was cool.
Fred Diamond: Take us back to some of the successes that you’ve had. Tell us about a mentor. Who was an impactful sales career mentor, and how did they specifically impact your career?
Dorean Kass: Paul McConville was the key mentor I had within sales, not just because I had fortune of working with him for so long during our 10 years at TARGUSinfo and Neustar but also because he’s a natural-born leader and somebody who takes you under his wing and shows you the ropes. His approach is ensuring that you have enough flexibility and rope to be able to manage and figure it out on your own. He’s not the type of person who just gives you the answer, and that forces a growth and a maturation that I think is important in what I do.
He taught me a lot of core principles about fairness and equality and how you put people in a position to succeed and how you give credit to others and that sort of selfless behavior, which I think is fairly uncommon in the sales marketplace as a whole. I learned a lot from Paul and consider myself fortunate to have worked with him and to have him as a friend.
Fred Diamond: That’s very cool. You can listen to the podcast with Paul here. He’s over at Hobsons now. Dorean, what are two of the biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader? What are two of the biggest things that you see that cause stress in the sales process?
Dorean Kass: One is the scalability and the ability to replicate sales more quickly. Neustar is many things to many people. We are not a widget company. That creates benefit in that we can solve almost any problem, but it also creates a lot of flexibility and customization, potentially chasing things that you shouldn’t [rather than] focusing on opportunities to scale and to be more replicable in the approach and more consistent in how we go to market and make recommendations for our clients. That’s always a challenge.
I think talent is also very challenging—finding people who are expert in so many different things and can have conversations at the highest level and really separate what we do from anything else available in the marketplace and build that clear and concise quantifiable value proposition and focus the attention back onto that. There’s a constant challenge to try to find the right talent and continue to build the organization the right way.
Fred Diamond: One of the main themes that we’ve heard in the Sales Game Changers Podcast is the ability to recruit the top 15%. That’s really going to make a difference. But have you been able to address the scalability and the flexibility problems? Is that something you’ve had some success in overcoming?
Dorean Kass: I think so, based upon the growth of the business over the past three, four, five years. We’ve also had a very interesting ride in that Neustar has grown through significant amounts of acquisition and then just recently was taken private, in August of 2017. We were acquired by Golden Gate Capital. It’s been interesting to go through a couple of different iterations and strategic approaches.
The short answer is [that driving scalability is a] perpetual challenge and something we’re continually trying to solve and address. On the talent side, I think you’re exactly right. The 15% is what everyone is striving for. We’ve also been very fortunate that a lot of the people here have been here for a long period of time. Many of the sales leadership here and individual contributors have been here 5, 10 years, and that sort of institutional knowledge is very difficult to replace.
Fred Diamond: Dorean, what is the number-one specific sales success or win from your career that you’re most proud of? Take us back to that moment.
Dorean Kass: I’ll give you two, because I’m an overachiever. As an individual contributor, I had a very large win with a direct response company, an organization that sells via phone and via TV that tries to drive consumers to make an emotional decision to buy. At that time, our business was much more focused on inbound call center applications to translate a non-converting phone inquiry into a direct mail piece to try to drive that consumer back to the website or back to the call center. It was not an application that was very heavily used in the marketplace. I was in a unique position in that I was relatively new to the company, didn’t know any better, and focused on the notion that what we do hadn’t been applied in this way but seems to make sense logically. That translated into a very successful business, both for me individually but also for the organization.
On top of that, I mentioned in the beginning, analytics solutions within Neustar is comprised of both marketing analytics and fraud risk and compliance. The challenges associated with the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) and the need to make sure that you’re dialing the right consumer when you’re autodialing a cell phone or sending a text message, you need to make sure that the person who gave you that phone number still owns that phone number. Because Neustar is expert in identity we could authoritatively link the name and phone together in real-time.
Before a bank, for example, wants to make an outbound dial to notify me about fraud or to try to collect on debt, the Dorean Kass who gave them consent 10 years ago may not own that phone number today. If that were the case, then they would have violated the TCPA to the tune of millions of dollars of potential lawsuit. We were able to build a $50 million-plus business from the opportunity presented and from the growth of the team. That’s something I’m also very proud of. I’m proud of the development of a specialized approach and the work that we do with many of the largest brands in the U.S.
Fred Diamond: Describe for me the ideal salesperson who could do the consultative-type selling, who could go into the customer without preconceived solutions. What are some of the traits that you see those types of people having?
Dorean Kass: It’s interesting that the most common question I get asked in an interview process is “Given how long you’ve been here, what do you see as the typical traits that make somebody successful within Neustar?” That translates into “What makes somebody successful?” in general. To answer your question and that question, there’s the typical attention to detail, drive, competitiveness, intelligence, communication skills, some of the cliché type of stuff. I think that’s important in anything you do.
For me, intellectual curiosity and a natural sense of curiosity are the most important. You can teach people to ask a question, but if they don’t know why they’re asking and they don’t really care as to the answer, the follow-up questions never get asked. That’s the most common challenge I have as I’m going through sales engagements with the team. We’re talking about strategy or opportunity. You can’t be in the room for every conversation. And so the people who are asking the questions need to understand why that question is asked and what they’re trying to accomplish from the question, and that comes from a natural sense of curiosity.
When you’re asking questions of your buddy or your kids or your wife or whomever, you’re not asking because you’re trying to move through a sales process. In sales, you’re asking because you actually want to show you understand. The client can tell that. You’re building that sort of trust by establishing your credibility and familiarity with their business and also by getting them to talk about their challenges and how they might run their business differently if you were able to address that. Behind the scenes you’re also able to frame a value proposition that can help you through that process. That sort of skill, that ability to have a thirst for knowledge and that natural sense of curiosity, is by far the number-one skill set that I think is needed in the consultative type of sales engagement.
Fred Diamond: Dorean, you’ve had a great career in sales. Did you ever question being in sales? Again, you made a shift from being a consultant into the sales world. Was there ever a moment where you thought to yourself “It’s just too hard, it’s just not for me”?
Dorean Kass: I don’t think I ever thought it’s not for me. I think everybody deals with adversity in some way, shape, or form in anything they do. It’s not necessarily a holistic view of “Is sales not right for me?” but there are certainly times that you question “Am I still adding value? Is this still the type of sale that I want to be doing?”
I subscribe very much to work ethic leading you through. If you’re doing the right things and you’re not getting the results, and you believe in the process, that’ll lead you through. If you’re doing the right things and you don’t see a view into how you’re going to come to the other side, that’s when you know it’s time to do something else.
Have I dealt with adversity? Have there been times where I wondered why it was taking so long? Yes. But I’ve always believed in the process, and I’ve always believed that I’ve been doing the right things and taking the right steps and have been fortunate that that has translated into success over my tenure.
Fred Diamond: What is the most important thing you want to get across to selling professionals listening to today’s podcast to help them improve their career?
Dorean Kass: Primarily, I would say it’s around drive and focus on trying to sell smarter, not harder. Cliché as it may be, when you go to any organization there are people who have been successful there. Quite often, especially with people who have been in sales for quite some time, they believe that they have a one-size-fits-all approach. I’m not sure that such a concept exists anywhere. Even if it does, the ability to start contributing sooner is where I see people be the most successful.
This is both in terms of their mental stability but also in the belief in the opportunity for their growth beyond that. The way to drive that acclimation period or ramp period, make it shorter and drive it down, is to learn from the people who’ve been successful in the organization and take what they do well combined with what you do well and translate it into a sum being greater than the individual parts.
As easy as that sounds, salespeople are built on ego. I think [all salespeople are] type A and very competitive. That’s partly what makes you good and able to deal with the challenges associated with sales. But you have to be selfless enough to understand that there may be an easier way to do it. There’s certainly may be an opportunity to learn from those who have been there and done that and translate that into your own ability to be successful sooner.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the things that you do specifically to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Dorean Kass: I like to spend time being customer-focused. I think, interestingly, what makes sales leaders and salespeople in general successful is their ability to build relationships and drive value for their customers. As you move into sales management, you get further and further away from the customer. It disintermediates your ability to know what’s going on directly. It’s something that you have to strive to maintain because it keeps you effective in knowing what is truly relevant for your clients, and it gives you the opportunity to build relationships with your sales team to understand how are they positioning things and the response in the room, things that you can’t learn just from debriefing after the fact. That’s one of the ways.
I like to read a lot. I like to learn a lot from experts and understand what others are doing. I spend a lot of time on LinkedIn. I spend a lot of time within the trade pubs trying to better understand what’s going on in the marketplace in general. And then, comparing notes, building relationships with people and understanding what you do versus what they do and how to compare and contrast. That’s a good way of continually calibrating and finding opportunities to improve.
Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Dorean Kass: I think I’m constantly focusing on strength and weaknesses in doing assessments on where people can improve, and I count myself in that group. A lot of where I’m focusing my attention on growing is better understanding the P&L of the business and operating more like a GM than just a sales leader. I think understanding the marketing side of things, the go-to market, the corporate marketing, the events, the campaigns, how that all fits in, the role of account management, the role of sales engineering and the role of inside sales, how to comp-plan better, incentivize the right behavior, all the different inner workings therein. That’s a lot of where I’m spending my time.
Fred Diamond: Dorean, sales is hard. People don’t return your calls or your emails. Why have you continued? What is it about sales as a career that keeps you going?
Dorean Kass: Look, if it was easy, everybody would be doing it. I think perseverance is a key component. Interestingly, the people who don’t have success, generally speaking, point the finger at whomever it is that they’re trying to contact. In many cases it’s changing the approach to be more relevant to the audience. If you’re not getting the response and you’re continuing to do the same thing over and over again, who’s the one who’s insane: the person you’re trying to reach or the person who’s doing the same approach and expecting a different outcome?
From my perspective, it’s much more around tweaking the messaging, tweaking the approach. Picking up the phone is very important, leveraging your relationships, leveraging your contacts. It is hard, but I think when you build a reputation for being credible in the marketplace and making good use of your client’s time…
What people tend to forget is people buy what they understand. Think about anything that you buy. If you didn’t know what a car was or how to drive, would you buy one regardless of how much it cost or how great the salesperson was? You have to buy what you understand, and people buy from those they trust. If you can establish an easy means of building trust and conveying something that they can understand and put their weight behind and prioritize, that’s where you’ll be the most successful.
Fred Diamond: Dorean, give us a final thought to share with our Sales Game Changer Podcast listeners today to inspire them.
Dorean Kass: I think for me it’s just “Never be satisfied.” I think it drives people crazy, my wife especially, in that nothing is ever good enough for me. I’d love to tell you that that’s something I learned. It’s just sort of the way that I’m wired. It’s the same way that I ask questions a lot because I really want to understand the why. Focusing on the why and focusing on trying to continue to improve, I think those are biggest takeaways.
If you’re satisfied being mediocre just hitting your number, that’s where you’ll end up. If you focus on being the best, and you constantly try to learn from those around you and those who are doing things differently or better, and you ask those questions because you’re trying to drive to the why, that’s the most important thing that people can take away.