EPISODE 109: DataRobot Public Sector’s Eric Forseter Shares How a Coffee Shop Owner in Australia Observed this Skill that Led Him to a Great Career in Software Sales
ERIC’S TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Just listen. The biggest thing you can do in your career is listen and absorb and make it your own. At the end of the day there may be a salesperson that does a presentation a certain way. If that’s not you, just take the good out of it and work on your craft to make it better and just constantly improve. If you do that, the sky’s the limit.”
Eric Forseter was the VP of Public Sector at Pindrop when we conducted this interview.
He is now the General Manager for Public Sector at DataRobot.
Prior to Pindrop, he held sales leadership positions at NetIQ and Starbase.
He was introduced to us by one of our previous guests, Rick Simmons, who gave us a great show.
Find Eric on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: Your path into sales leadership might be different from some of the other people we’ve interviewed in the podcast. Why don’t you tell us how you first got into sales as a career?
Eric Forseter: It’s a funny story and there’s actually two parts to it. Things happened to me, I joked that it’s like the secret of my success or Ferris Bueller or things like that and what happened for me was I was in college senior year, I was studying for the L set, I ended up getting into 3 of the top 15 law schools out there. One night, my friend said, “Let’s go out, let’s go to a bar, let’s go dancing, whatever” I said, “OK, sure.” We’re out and this guy comes up and starts talking to my friend and he said, “Hey, I work for Netscape and my client who I’m supposed to take out today bailed on me, so I got this expense account, let’s go do stuff on the town.”
I’m like, “This guy’s a little shady” we’re unsure but turned out his name was Mike Johnson, he was a sales rep at Netscape, cool guy. He taught us and he just told us all about what he’s doing in sales and I’m like, “That sounds really cool, you take customers out, you wine ’em and dine ’em.” He didn’t tell me all of the grind you that have to go through but it was like, “OK, that’s pretty cool.”
Fast forward, I decide, “This is something I may want to do but I’m more set on law school.” I had met some Australians, I studied abroad for my junior year and I met what I thought were Australians, they were actually South Africans who emigrated to Australia and they said, “Come visit us in Australia” and I said, “Alright, like a week? Two weeks?” They’re like, “No, for a year.” I’m like, “A year? How about a month?” and they were like, “No, a year.” So I went down to Australia and I got a working holiday visa, there’s one in a hundred I think every year that are given.
When I was down there, I was working in a coffee shop and surfing at the beach, taking a year off, figure I’d go to a good law school and spend the rest of my life reading and in depositions and things like that but the owner comes in (of the coffee shop) and he says, “Eric, what are you doing?” I said, “I’m making coffee” and he goes, “What are you really doing?” and I’m like, “I think I’m really making coffee” but turns out he worked for Visio Australia and New Zealand and Visio not the TV company but the Microsoft Visio now, Microsoft acquired them. He said, “Look, I really want you to come work for me” and I said, “Work for you? I am, I’m working in the coffee shop” and he goes, “No, I work for a software company.” I said, “Computers?” and he goes, “Software.” I go, “Computers?” He goes, “Software. Just show up Monday.” I said to him, “What are you interested in me? You see me working at a coffee shop.”
He understood my law school story and things like that and he was like, “Look, I see your work ethic. I see how you act with customers and I think you could be really great in sales.” It was very serendipitous that that worked out that way and I ended up working there for about a year and I learned from him and a bunch of the salespeople, he was the general manager of like Asia pack essentially and his name’s Gus. From there I was like, “Being in a software company’s awesome.” You learn every day, you have a chance to succeed, a chance to really impact the company and I decided to come back to the states and try my luck in software and put law school off another year. It’s a confluence of events but someone above or somewhere was telling me, “Hey, you should try to sell.”
Luckily, that’s worked out well.
Fred Diamond: I don’t think we’ve interviewed anybody who came from the coffee shop world.
Eric Forseter: It doesn’t happen that often, I would mention.
Fred Diamond: Yeah, you never know. Did you ever go to law school, just curiously?
Eric Forseter: No. What happened was I differed it for another year and one of the law schools was like, “You’re crazy” and I was like, “Well, what am I going to do?” and I never went to law school. I ended up getting my MBA a few years later as my sales career went on and at the time my boss was like, “Why are you getting your MBA? You’re going to take a pay cut if you go into marketing or HR” and I was like, “I just want to know the business side.” All kidding aside, he was like, “It’s good. You’ll learn the business” but sales, I started that 20+ years ago and I just haven’t looked back. It’s been very rewarding and I’ve been very blessed. I’m very lucky to have great teams and great mentors.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the key lessons that you took away from some of those first few sales jobs and maybe even working in the coffee shop? What were some of the lessons that you’ve continued, Eric Forseter, to apply to your career?
Eric Forseter: I think the first thing is – and I’ll probably harp on this a lot – is just being able to listen. A lot of people out there say, “This guy is the best salesperson” or, “This gal is the best salesperson, they can talk your ear off, they can do that.” I definitely can compete with them on that but the best salespeople I know, they listen. They get to know their customer. To me, that’s the most important piece and they actually care about them because you can go and sell to anyone but it’s really what you do after the sale and how that happens. I learned that from the first couple of jobs that I was in.
You’d watch people, you understand what they’re doing. You don’t really know what you’re selling until you’re actually selling, it’s like the Mike Tyson quote which is like, “Everybody has a plan until they get hit in the mouth” and that’s the truth. I hire salespeople today and they’re like, “I can sell, I can do this” and I’ll tell them, “Look, what we sell is really art and this is going to be harder than you think” and then they get there and they’re like, “Oh, this wasn’t what I thought it was.” You don’t really realize how hard it is to get an order out of a customer until you’ve actually done it.
That first sale is really hard. I’ve seen people be very successful that I think, “There’s no way” and I’ve seen people are like, “This is the smartest person, they talk so well” and they just can’t succeed. I think you have to just realize what is best for you and how does that work. The other thing too, is territory and product matter. I know it sounds crazy but the worse rep goes into the best territory, they’re going to succeed because the territory’s going to just be there for them. The best rep in a bad territory, they might just make their number but they’re going to have to work really hard. You have to realize that, too. The most important thing, I think, besides listening is that you’re not the only thing on your customer’s mind and this goes to getting to know your customer.
There’s times when you call up a customer and they’re all in a bad mood and it could be their boss yelled at them or their spouse is mad or their kid got hurt or whatever it is and we’ve all been there where the customer yells at you or hangs up on you or does something and you just have to realize while you’re important in your project or whatever you’re selling to them is important, your software product, it’s not the only thing that they’re dealing with. You’ve got to get to know them and build that relationship because they’re going to have a bad day and you don’t want to make it even worse. You’ve got to say, “Hey, I get it. It’s a bad day” or whatever and those things are important because at the end of the day, your reputation and how they perceive you is going to lead you now for this sale, but for other ones in the future.
Fred Diamond: Tell us a little more about you specifically. What are you an expert in? Tell us more about your area of brilliance.
Eric Forseter: I think there’s two big things. One is I can take deals and make them bigger. A good example of that is I had a rep when I first started managing and she was like, “Look, I’m trying to sell a million dollar deal and company won’t buy and we went back and forth” and I said, “Hey, let me come in.” Going in, we started talking and I said to the customer, “Look, you want this deal, you don’t want to spend a million dollars. Why don’t we just break it up and you’ll buy it in chunks of 250, 500 thousand” and the guy’s like, “Why would you do that?” I said, “Because your signing level is to a million. You don’t want to go to your boss.” He goes, “Exactly.”
Well, that guy ended up spending like 4 and a half million dollars on us so it’s all about being creative. Everybody likes to see that 7 figure check or PO but that doesn’t always make the difference. It’s how do you bring it in and I feel like I’ve been very fortunate to figure things out and look at the playing field. I do a lot of sports analogies so you asked a little more about me in the beginning, I view things very much over a sports lens. I play college basketball and I look at that and say, “Okay, what’s the defense? How do you read it?” and every time it’s a little different. You just never know.
The other thing, two, going to that sports analogy the second thing is I get the most out of my team. You’ll hear a lot in the industry, “We online hire A players, we only hire A+ players, blah, blah, blah.” There’s only so many A players out there. Its just reality of life and the thing is that management will say, “That guy’s a B player, get rid of him. Go find an A player.” If 10% of the population is A players, another 20 or 30 is B and the rest are below that. The goal of a good manager, I think, is it’s not really about the A players so much but it’s how do you take that B player and make him a B+ or an A- or how do you take that C player and get a B effort out of them? Because even if we hired perfectly out there, you’re just not going to be able to pull all the A players. It’s just a reality.
My job is really to coach and figure out and mentor these reps and determine how do I make them more successful and act accordingly. I think I’ve done a fairly good job with that, it’s a tough job but it’s a fun one because you like to see people grow and do great things.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us about an impactful sales career mentor and how they impacted your career?
Eric Forseter: I’m going to give you three and I was very fortunate because they came along very early in my career all at the same company. Frank Gelbart, Leslie Favicchia and Don Robinson. They all hired me basically in my first roles after I came back from Australia. Don actually hired me but Frank was the VP of Sales and Leslie was the Regional VP.
Fred Diamond: At which company was this?
Eric Forseter: This was at Entevo, they’ve been acquired several times over but it was a startup based in the DC area. I’m very thankful to all of them for just giving me the opportunity in sales and they’ll all say, “You did it all yourself” and I’ll say, “No, you really taught me a lot of things.” They all have different visions but I spent a lot of time just talking with them. They’ve all been very successful in their careers and I will spend time calling them from time to time, going to lunch with them, two of them are local ones in New York and I would just call them to catch up with them and talk about my deals, what I’m doing with certain reps, how the company’s going in vision.
They look at different things, they’ve guided me for which companies I should look at, when I was looking for another opportunity, “Do you want to go to a big company, a startup, a growth company?” They’ve done things where they’ve said, “You’re in this deal, have you thought about doing X Y Z which is really important?” They also from a perspective of how to handle reps and how to do things, they’re very good in that regard. I recommend to most salespeople that I took to to get a mentor, get someone who’s going to help you and find that person and don’t latch onto them, grab them.
Try to get as much and be a sponge and soak it up. One of the things I learned just playing basketball, the coaches that were great would say, “Be a sponge” Absorb everything, but don’t absorb just the good. Observe the bad because even the worst sales rep or worst basketball player, they’re doing something right out there. Take what they’re doing right and use that but then take what they’re doing wrong and say, “OK, I’m not going to do that.” Those are the things that are really important. They’ve been great to me.
Fred Diamond: Not to put you on the spot here, but you mentioned you played some college basketball. You played at Tufts University up just north of Boston. Anything you can take away from the basketball court, from your college basketball career? We’ve interviewed some people on the Sales Game Changers podcast that have had exceptional sports careers. Dorean Kass played college football at Stanford, Christine Barger at Microsoft was a championship lacrosse player at Maryland, Rick Simmons – the guy who introduced us to you – was a very successful college football player for a number of years. Anything that you can think of that you took away from the hard court that is applicable to becoming a sales leader?
Eric Forseter: I think there’s a few things. First of all, I wasn’t as fortunate as them to be as successful in the sports world in college but I did do well in high school. The thing that I would say from sports is that you have to learn how to lose but also how to win. The biggest thing for me was how to put in that effort to get to college and to get to that college level of playing. For example, when I went to college I knew I was going to play but to get to that point, the effort you had to put in was tremendous. I have young kids today and people say, “I want my kids to play in college, I want my kid to do this” and I’m like, “Look, the person has to love it.”
The same thing for sales, you really have to love it. If you don’t love what you’re doing then you probably don’t want to be in sales. I know doctors who just love being a doctor and that’s great, you’ve got to find your passion. The second piece is you have to put the work in with it, too. There’s plenty of people out there who love sales but, “I really don’t want to work very hard.” If you’re not going to work hard, you’re not going to get the same rewards. In sports, the more you practice it’s practice makes permanent, not perfect. The same thing with sales, the more you practice your sales, the more you hone your craft, the better you will be. I read a lot of books and listen to a lot of sports, one I’m a sports junkie but two I just love to understand how they’re motivating people and what their work ethic is. When you see those kind of things, you understand, “How can I apply this in my world, too?”
One of the guys I worked with, this guy Don Dicklas who’s an unbelievable sales rep, he never played college sports but is a huge basketball fan, plays all the time and he approaches every sales meeting like a game, like, “Okay, I’m going in. I’m going to go play this game and it’s a competition.” If you think of it that way, you’re going to hopefully win a fair amount. I use the sports analogy like a good baseball player.
An average sales rep is going to close 25% of their deals. That’s really what happens. If you’re average then you got to have more deals because it’s just a numbers game. You have 10 deals, you’re going to close 2 and a half, 3 deals if you’re lucky probably, but 2 and a half let’s call it. If you’re that average rep, don’t have 10 deals. Have 100 deals, now you’ve got 25 deals you’re going to close. The really good reps and the almost A reps, they’re going to close, there’d be a 300 batter and they’re going to close 30%. The hall of famers, rock stars, 350 maybe 400 but nobody closes everything. You have to learn how to lose or then get knocked down and be able to stand back up again.
Fred Diamond: Eric, what are the two biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
Eric Forseter: I think the first thing is getting the customer to focus on myself or the company or my sales reps. There are so many products out there today and there’s so many mediums to get to the customer whether it’s social media, whether it’s internet advertising, emailing, calling. I have to constantly remind my reps, “You’re calling this person, your competitors are calling this person and by the way, ten or a hundred other companies are calling this person for products that are not even related to what you do and this guy is getting deluged with a hundred phone calls a day if he’s the CISO or CIO, whatever. You’re going to get lucky if you get 5 minutes of his time. By the way, they still have to do their job.”
The second challenge is finding the right talent. I’ll go back to the sports analogy and again, I guess that I’m a sports junkie but look at the Washington Capitals who won the championship this year. They had all the town in the world but it wasn’t the right pieces to win a championship and what they had to figure out is find the right role players, find the right people to put in the right positions. In sales, it’s very similar. You could work for a company like Oracle and certain Oracle reps can go anywhere in the world. It could be, I’ll call him Tom Brady. Put him in any system, Tom’s going to be a hall of famer. Then there are other quarterbacks out there and you take them and put them in – I use Mark Sanchez, no reference to Mark, but he was an OK quarterback. He was a great quarterback in college, he was OK in the pros, he was terrible in the Jets and they brought him to Philadelphia. All of a sudden, his career’s resurrected. Everybody says, “He’s going to be great again.” Guess what? It was the right system for him. You’ve got to figure out, “Is this salesperson a system buyer or can this person really go anywhere?” That’s a hard thing to do, it’s a tough thing to determine.
Fred Diamond: Take us back to the #1 specific sale success or win from your career that you’re most proud of.
Eric Forseter: This is a tough one. I’ve got a few, and again I try to say this with the least amount of ego possible. I think the first one was my first sale in software in the US. We were at that first startup I talked to you about, it was to American Century, a small relative to the size of deals, about 60 thousand dollar deal but we never sold over the phone and I got this customer, I worked the whole magic and we were able to do it which is really exciting because I was like, “Okay, now I know.” That moment I was like, “Alright, I belong.” I think it’s just like an athlete standing in any play field, they score, they do something like, “Okay, I can do this.” The other things that are really important to me, my team when I was at a couple of my companies we were the top sales team multiple years in a row for multiple years. Seeing that, seeing a team winning has been phenomenal.
The other one for me was the first million dollar deal I ever did. It’s just a number at the end of the day, but when you get over 7 figures – I’ve done 8 figure deals, too – that first one is always tough. I remember you’re always going to have doubt so just going back to college basketball I had people say to me in high school, “You’re never going to play in college” or, “You’re never going to do this.” You have to prove them wrong. The same thing in sales, I had people when I first started saying like, “This guy’s just a kid” or, “He doesn’t know anything.”
The question that came up once was, “How many million dollar deals has he closed?” then when I closed my first one I was like, “Alright, I can always say to someone I’ve closed one.” Since then we’ve closed a lot which is very nice but that first one is like, “Okay, no one has that knock against me” so to speak.
Fred Diamond: Was there ever a moment along the way where you thought to yourself, “You know what? It’s too hard, it’s just not for me”?
Eric Forseter: I think every day. [Laughs] just kidding. I think you do doubt yourself here and again, especially when you get a no. That’s part of that athlete mentality, but I don’t ever think it’s too hard, I just look at it now going back to that closing that first deal or the million dollar deal. It’s like, “Okay, what’s the next challenge?” I think in sales you realize I tackle one thing and again, using the sports mentality, Bill Parcells – I’m a Redskin fan – I’d rather not use him but he says, “You build it like a house, you don’t put on the roof day 1. You go brick by brick.”
To me, I don’t question things when I look at deals today and they say, “Look, we want to do a 5 million dollar deal.” I say, “Okay, how do we get there? We know we want to have this deal closed by next year at this time. What are the steps?” and we follow that plan and we’re going to deviate here and there, it’s going to happen. You’re going to have moments of doubt but then you push through them. If people say that they don’t I would say I don’t know if they’re lying but everybody doubts themselves for a second. You just got to keep fighting through.
Fred Diamond: How many of those 8 figure deals have you sold?
Eric Forseter: A lot.
Fred Diamond: Good for you.
Eric Forseter: We’ve been very fortunate in that regard.
Fred Diamond: Eric, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the junior selling professionals listening around the globe today to help them improve their career?
Eric Forseter: I would say listen, that is the #1 thing. I talk to my college coach a lot just in general, I joke with him that I still have a year of eligibility left if he needs a short slope point guard or whatever. He never takes me up on it but that’s alright. Last year or two years ago when our team was in the NCAA’s and they make the tournament a lot, he’s like, “We have a chance to win but they just have to listen” and I was like, “You know what? He’s right.” The salespeople, if you listen, it’s not just listening to your customer but it’s listening to your other salespeople and learning from them and it’s listening to your boss or your boss’s boss and figure that out and get to know your products.
There’s so many salespeople out there that just want to go sell and they don’t trust the materials that they get from the company and they need to understand. Get to know the product left and right. I say to them, “Know your why”, you mentioned that earlier to me, that why are you selling? Why do you want to do this? The work ethic, the hustle, being efficient, being creative is really important and don’t expect someone to do something for you. When I say that, it could be in your company, somewhere someone says, “Take care of that report.” You just have to be thorough. If someone says they’re going to get something done, don’t be a jerk and be all over them or micro-manage them but make sure they’re getting everything because you are the quarterback of a team.
When you’re a salesperson, you’re running your own business and you have to say to yourself, “This is my business and I’ve got to go to the marketing person, there’s four other people asking for something and I’ve got to go to the consulting person. There’s two other people asking” and you’ve got to get those things out of them and you’ve got to be nice and they’ve got to do that. I’d mentioned earlier, learn from those who did before you, learn the good and the bad. I remember when I first started selling I was like, “Who are these jokers over here? They don’t know anything.” I look at them and I go, “These guys can’t sell” and then I’m like, “Oh my god, they can sell and I can’t. What am I doing wrong?” Then you’ve got to figure that out. I think you’ve got to be efficient. I tell people all the time, if you’re lucky, you have 35 hours a week to sell. You’re on a shock clock.
There are customers in the office 7, 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. You’ve got to be efficient, don’t spend two hours commuting into the office, spend 20 minutes commuting in the office. Go in later but start prospecting at 7 o’clock in the morning. Save your emails for the end of the day, they can wait. I think those are the things and keep learning. Don’t assume that you know everything. If I knew everything, I’d probably be sitting on a beach drinking a margarita or something like that. It’s important to keep doing it. The young people out there – I see this all the time and I was one of them – I used to say, “I know this, I can sell better than that person.” You might be able to, but there’s something that they can teach you, be a sponge and try to figure that out. I know it’s there’s a lot of the things.
The only other thing I would say too is at the end of the day, selling trumps everything. When you’re at a company and they’re like, “It’s training, you’ve got to do this or do that.” You’ve got to figure out, you’ve got a quota and you’ve got to sell to it and that’s what the company’s going to look at. Be yourself but figure out at the end of the day, how am I going to sell? How am I going to be successful? Last thing is be yourself. People buy from other people. People buy from me because I try to be as genuine as I can and again, what we do after the sale is more important than during the sale. They’re going to know. If you get a bad reputation, you’re building a house of cards so as soon as you do one bad thing all of a sudden everybody else knows about it. You do a great thing, other customers refer you and things like that.
Fred Diamond: Very good. What are some of the things you’re doing to stay fresh and sharpen your saw?
Eric Forseter: I constantly study. I read, there’s a couple good sales emails I come out. I’m going to start actually listening to your podcast. I didn’t know about it before but now I’m like, “This is great, I can listen to this for an hour and study up on it.” I try to study by reading different books about sales, reading different sports books about leadership and things like that, I subscribe to a bunch of different emails that give you a sales tip a week. Sometimes it’s as easy as make sure you follow up with an email, and sometimes it’s other things that I’ve never thought of.
Then you try to learn from everyone. A good example is a guy on my team this week, he came up with a great idea and I was like, “We’re going to use that and we’re going to implement it across the board.” Things like that make a difference.
Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Eric Forseter: That’s a good one. Within the company we’ve started implementing a weekly call for training for our employees or our salespeople and not every company does that but we do a good job of not only training on how to sell our product but how to sell in general. We spend 30 minutes on one half, 30 minutes on the other and sometimes it’s basic but it’s just good ideas of reinforcing the basics and the fundamentals of that. I try to reach out to other leaders in other companies all the time. I’ve been fortunate a lot of people I know either move their way up the chain or have been very successful, already were up the chain and just called them, “What are you seeing? What are you talking about?” I also talk to recruiters. I know it sounds crazy, but they’ll tell you this person has done … and you get insight from them as well.
Fred Diamond: Very good. Eric, Sales is hard. People don’t return your phone calls or your emails. You need to keep practicing, it’s a profession. Why have you continued? What is it about sales as a career that has kept you going?
Eric Forseter: I think the biggest thing is I love the game, I love the challenge. I love winning, I love the reward and I love helping people. I probably wouldn’t sell chairs, that could help people sit down but – at the end of the day I think about I love to work for products that have a good mission and that they help out the customer at the end of the day and I love the challenge of competing. Being a former college athlete I think that’s really important. While I’d love to play in the NBA, I know that’s never going to be in the cards, so to me those are the big things.
Fred Diamond: Eric, for the Sales Game Changers listening around the globe, why don’t you give us one final thought? Something to inspire our listeners today.
Eric Forseter: I’ll say it again, just listen. The biggest thing you can do in your career is listen and absorb and make it your own. At the end of the day there may be a salesperson that does a presentation a certain way. If that’s not you, just take the good out of it and work on your craft to make it better and just constantly improve. If you do that, the sky’s the limit. I will say this, I’m not necessarily the most talented salesperson, but I know that my work ethic is going to trump everyone else’s – maybe not everyone but enough people that I will put myself on top. I think at the end of the day, if you put in the work ethic that says, “Look, these salespeople put in 4 hours a day, put in 6. They put in 8 hours, you put in 9.” At the end of the day, those things will make a difference.
Fred Diamond: I’m going to ask you one final question before we wrap up here. You’ve brought up listening frequently. Listening comes up not infrequently on the Sales Game Changers podcast. People have said, “You have two ears and one mouth, use them in that order.” The 66% solution. It’s great to say, “Listen better” and most people listen until it’s their time to talk. Give us some tips, some advice, something you have done to become a more effective listener in your career.
Eric Forseter: One of the things that I do is I take notes. Whenever I walk into a sales opportunity, I give a sign in sheet so everybody signs it and I learned that early on, I thought it was a crazy idea. I have people actually write down their information for me and then I flip the sheet over and I ask questions, and I just write things down. Then from there I try to take what they’ve said. If we’re selling a fraud solution, I say, “How much fraud do you have?” and they say, “We have a million dollars a year” or, “Twenty million dollars. Five million is in the phone channel” and they start talking about other things, I try to shape those things into my product. The next customer I go into may say, “I have an authentication problem, I don’t have a fraud problem” so I don’t lead right away with the fraud piece, I lead with authentication. It’s not just listening but it’s taking that and turning that information and putting it into a better format that makes sense for the customer.