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EPISODE 150: Nextgov Publisher James Hanson Shares the Three Things Marketers Need to Do to Best Serve Government Customers
JAMES’ FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Know your industry and market, get to know the people, the companies, the buyers and sellers. It’s as easy as spending 30 minutes a day reading the trade magazines, combing through LinkedIn or Twitter, or listening to a podcast to get the latest news trends and information.”
James Hanson is the VP and Publisher of Nextgov, the federal technology media division of Government Executive Media Group.
Find James on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: I’m excited to hear your story. We’ve had a couple publishers on the Sales Game Changers podcast in the past, we’ve had Steve Vito and of course Alex Treadway. We’ll provide links to their shows. I’m excited to hear your evolution, how you got to here and what you’re doing today. Why don’t you tell us? Tell us what you sell today and tell us what excites you about that.
James Hanson: I sell sales and marketing programs for companies providing technology and technology services to public sector organizations. What excites me about it is really our mission, we cover the personnel business and mission of government. As part of this community, we are trying to help government do their job better through independent, credible journalism and research as well as bring government and industry together through events to provide better services to citizens, better healthcare to veterans, protect our first responders and war fighters. Each year Government Executive Media Group brands and sites are ranked by its audience as the go-to news and platform to accomplish this mission. That’s really what gets me excited, ultimately delivering to our audience things that are going to help them in their own careers.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the things that you sell? Of course, you’re a publisher but I guess print has been probably not as big as it was. What are some of the things that you offer to your technology customers?
James Hanson: We actually went away from print 5 years ago and became the first 10% digital news site for the federal government. Since then we’ve built out dedicated defense publication and news site, Defense 1, Nextgov which is our federal technology network and then Route 50 which is our state and local news site and network. Through that, we obviously sell advertising programs to build awareness for contractors and organizations like GEICO or even an educational institute like Harvard University trying to sell MBA programs across that.
We also have an events division as I mentioned, which is helping to bring government and industry together to identify challenges and provide new opportunities and insights. We also have a research division which is dedicated to providing independent research of our audience on trends and challenges, as well as for our clients that are trying to figure out how their solutions fit into the government’s biggest challenges and problems.
Fred Diamond: How did you first get into sales as a career?
James Hanson: I guess my first “sales job” was as a waiter and bartender at Kilroy’s. While there was no quota attached to it, it taught me how important relationships are and customer service and delivery for filling my register and my tip bucket. My first career sales job was at Army Times Publishing Company which is now Sightline Media Group in the defense news as an Advertising Coordinator. I actually managed our international sales organization, so we had reps around the globe about 8 total across Europe and a number of other continents. I had a direct sales territory that included Israel, Singapore and Brazil and as my coordinator was to help those reps be the go-between with our headquarter organization in Springfield and there. I think that was a good starting ground for where I am today.
Fred Diamond: You’ve mostly worked in the public sector space helping companies get their message to federal audiences, it sounds like. What is it about that marketplace that has interested you to devote your career to it?
James Hanson: My mother worked for the State Department for 30 years. It was also the first job that I got an interview for and got a job, so that started that trajectory. Throughout the years seeing the work and dedication that our public service people provide to our country is uplifting knowing that while I don’t work directly for a government agency and providing those services, I’m helping companies find the right opportunities to help government do that and to support that mission. It’s rewarding in that way and it’s just a unique technology, advancing our country from an economic and consumer standpoint, that in and of itself is where I’ve stayed in based on interest and growth and opportunity.
Fred Diamond: When you were selling advertising for Army Times, what were some of the key lessons you learned from your first few sales jobs? As a matter of fact, the bartending side might be interesting but let’s focus on when you were selling advertising. What were some of those key lessons that you learned that have stuck with you?
James Hanson: At Defense News I certainly learned a number of key sales lessons. First, successful customer service and delivery equates to sales, my job wasn’t only to sell advertising but ensure we were providing value beyond the signed agreement. Whenever possible I’d look for news that impacted my clients, our international clients and made sure that they were aware of it. When we got an ad into the office I made sure to review it and provide another layer of proofing before it went to print. I can’t tell you how many times I caught an error in the copy, colors didn’t match or somebody just sent in the wrong ad and I think providing that level of value beyond just the sales opportunity helped me build those relationships and continue to grow.
Secondly, I think one of the biggest ones was I learned the value of a win-win relationship. When you’re working with international clients, there is a level of negotiation that goes into everything so both parties have to be willing to walk away from the table if the deal doesn’t provide value and benefit both parties. Every deal has that value whether it’s short term or long term, if it’s revenue or profit, if it’s awareness or engagement, businesses aren’t in the business of giving away things for free. At times we had to walk away from revenue because it just wasn’t profitable and didn’t provide the long-term value to the company. I think those were two of my biggest that I carried on throughout my career.
Fred Diamond: Tell us what you’re an expert in, what is your specific area of brilliance?
James Hanson: Honestly, nothing. [Laughs] I’ve always been an inch deep and a mile wide kind of guy when it comes to my expertise and knowledge about anything. If I had to pick anything I’ve been really good at in sales is simply putting myself in the shoes of my client, making their business my business and trying to find that win-win opportunity for the both of us. Part of that is problem solving, looking in the gray areas to find that value for both of us. I think that’s where I have a lot of success.
Fred Diamond: A lot of people on the Sales Game Changers podcast can attribute a lot of their success to having great relationships with mentors who’ve guided them through and helped them understand how to work with some customers. Have you had any impactful sales career mentors? If so, why don’t you tell us how they impacted your career?
James Hanson: My first boss, David Smith, who was at the time Vice President of Business Development and Marketing at Defense News taught me about marketing and branding in the role it plays in sales both from a personal as well as from an organizational perspective. I think what that allowed me to do was put myself in my client’s shoes to better understand what their goals and objectives were so I could come up with the best solution. In my opinion, sales and marketing are a marriage, it’s a partnership, both have to be equally present, engaged and work together to maximize the success of the entire household.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include my former CEO, Joanne Connelly, at the top of that list as well who taught me the difference between taking orders and providing value back to clients. I think not only in sales or marketing but in business and project management we get into a habit of once we get a sale is really checking the boxes as we deliver that. Going back to that customer service and delivery is making sure that throughout that process we’re providing value in terms of additional opportunities from a messaging or audience perspective.
Fred Diamond: I want to probe in that for a second. You talked about how David Smith helped you understand the value of branding in the sales process. Is branding still important today as it might have been 15, 20 years ago?
James Hanson: Absolutely. I think the pure definition of branding is perception and anything that you provide from a product or your own company should have the perception that you’re giving value to your customers. Marketing helps create branding and awareness for the company which trickles down to the salesperson. As salespeople are making calls, is a customer is as aware of your brand, it becomes a lot easier to have the conversation and move it down the funnel versus having to then explain who your company is, what you do and then the value on top of that. Certainly brand from a personal perspective is important, I think any salesperson wants to be seen as credible, have integrity, a thought leader and your personal brand plays into the entire sales process in that.
Fred Diamond: How much time do you spend with your sales team to have them work on their personal brand, is that a big priority of yours?
James Hanson: Yes. We regularly have work-group sessions throughout the year to talk about personal branding. We brought in some sales professionals that have large profiles on LinkedIn and how they do that, how do you create content, how do you create thought leadership. I think especially junior salespeople tend to just try and get to the sale versus really understanding what the marketplace is and what those trends and shifts and challenges are so that they can be better prepared to help their clients have success.
Fred Diamond: When you’re brand new in sales there’s a lot of things you need to learn. We find a lot of younger sales professionals will focus on the technique, getting used to the phone, getting comfortable with the phone but there’s so much more that they need to understand. The business of their customer, how does your customer operate? What is their customer’s customer’s challenge? What are they trying to bring to their customer? We’re talking today with James Hanson, he’s the VP and publisher of Nextgov. James, what are the two biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
James Hanson: I think that #1 I would put time and scalability together. Everyone is so busy today, we live in an environment that operates 24 hours a day in terms of access and communication and our clients are busy. Everybody’s obviously focused on their business and their customers, so it’s sometimes difficult to get in front of the right people, especially in senior positions because they’re busy and it’s completely understandable.
We move so quickly today although I think in the federal market we move a little bit slower than others. I think time and the ability to scale yourself to get in front of your customers at the right time when they need it. Sales is a lot of timing, overall time stands out as a challenge in general.
Fred Diamond: What are some things you do to solve that?
James Hanson: That’s a great question. I think leveraging social networks is a very important opportunity for salespeople today because you can sit and dial the phone a hundred times, but now we live in an environment where if the name doesn’t come up on the phone you’re not necessarily going to pick it up. I think creating a presence on social media sites whether it be LinkedIn or Twitter, even Facebook for some verticals and markets. Being a thought leader, putting your company’s services or products out there but talking about them in a way that they help customers allows you to reach a much larger audience and begin that brand process so that when you do call or you do see somebody at an industry event, you’re more noticeable.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you take us back to the #1 success or win from your career you’re most proud of?
James Hanson: There certainly are a few and it’s hard to go back to those days at Defense News although there certainly was a lot of wins that at the time seemed big, now seem small working at an international market. I think one recently was in 2016, there was a telecommunications company that had not done really much marketing in the federal space but wanted to build out a partner program that allowed them to leverage partner funds to promote their joint capabilities, subject matter expertise and use cases.
At the time they didn’t have resources or bandwidth to create or execute programs, especially leveraging different third parties. Given my company’s relationship in the community, we engaged a number of different organizations and created an integrated campaign program that leveraged both our expertise as well as multiple third parties that don’t typically work together. We were able to bring them together at the table to help this one client create these programs that met their needs and achieve their goals.
It took about three months to get stood up, but in 2017 we delivered more than 8 integrated partner programs exceeding all metrics within and throughout that year and that campaign. They were at the time the largest marketing client for my company which was certainly a big personal win, but it was a unique opportunity that played to my skills in creating campaigns and strategies for clients to reach their customers.
Fred Diamond: I’ve been a marketing executive in my career and I’ve spent tens of millions of dollars on marketing things. Today in 2019 there’s a lot of challenges, your money has to go further, you need to be able to show return, there’s always great marketing ideas and things to do and I’ve tried them all. What do you think the biggest challenge is that your customer faces right now? What is the big challenge, the big thing that you guys solve for a company that’s trying to pursue technology markets, the federal technology customer? What are they struggling with? Branding is important but it’s different now because there’s so little time to prove results. Exposure, access, what are some of the big challenges that you guys solve?
James Hanson: I think that your comment of making dollars go a lot farther is certainly a big challenge. Recently we’ve talked to a number of marketing executives that are now getting quotas that are responsible for tracking those efforts, those leads, nurturing them down through the pipeline and then into the actual sales process. That’s why I refer back to that marriage between sales and marketing because I think all marketers need to understand what the sales goals are. I think that the best approach for a campaign is three key pillars: one is that awareness, one is that branding and one is thought leadership.
The challenge is how do you build a program that incorporates those three things that ultimately feed into the pipeline and then how do you measure that. I think that is a big challenge that marketers have, that is a challenge that I am actually very excited to help clients solve because certainly for us – and not just us, there are other organizations in the community that have the capabilities, the audience to help marketers achieve that. That’s what gets me excited and up every day in terms of “sales”, is to help marketers go from that top of the funnel down through an actual sale.
Fred Diamond: James, I can tell you have a passion for helping your customers solve their problems but you’ve also got to bring in the revenue, you’ve also got to achieve your quota. Did you ever question being in sales? Did you ever think to yourself once you got started, “It’s too hard, it’s really just not for me”?
James Hanson: Lots of times. To be honest, I don’t really love “sales.” I consider myself more of a business person and more of a market consultant. I love, as I’ve said numerous times already in our conversation, helping my clients identify those opportunities, reach their customer, mapping their customer, understanding who their customer is and then how can my product or my service or my solution help them.
Again, I like the marriage of sales and marketing and how they work together. They’re are a lot more successful salespeople than me including in my own organization, but I really enjoy trying to find that right solution and being creative. It allows me to work with sales professionals, executive leaders, marketing people to help achieve goals, that’s beyond just sales. I think people when they think of sales think of, “Let me get the line signed and the quota marked” but I think it extends. It’s that upfront engagement, it’s that through the process, it’s how do we now take this to yet another level and extend reach for the client?
Fred Diamond: James, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the junior selling professionals listening today to help them take their career to the next level?
James Hanson: Know your industry and market, get to know the people, the companies, the buyers and sellers. It’s as easy as spending 30 minutes a day reading the trade magazines, coming through LinkedIn or Twitter, listening to a podcast to get the latest news trends and information. Certainly the federal market is a little unique and different, but I think this is true throughout any industry. Don’t just try to sell products, sell a solution to your client’s challenge or potential challenge down the road, that really requires you to understand what your market and industry and clients are facing.
Fred Diamond: What are some things you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
James Hanson: I think the previous answer is what I still try to continue to do this day, is stay on top of the industry trends and opportunities for my clients. Reading about my own client’s news and being familiar with where they’re going, trying to create solutions to do that. I listen to other podcasts as well whether that’s my market or my role as a salesperson to how do I better help my clients. At the same time I try and make an effort to spend a little time with family to give me a little break between it all.
Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
James Hanson: Personally, I’ve been listening to a number of sales podcasts like yourself. I think my previous role was more business development but I was also very much involved in the operations side of things. Now I’m as much more into the sales, I think my primary role is as a brand evangelist for Nextgov, I have a quota and revenue is ultimately what is going to determine my success at the end of the day.
How do I better understand the sales process and I think listening to podcasts like yourself is very helpful in doing that. From a market perspective and in Nextgov perspective we’re actually growing our podcast network right now. We started Defense 1 podcast last year, we now have 200,000 subscribers, it went from a monthly to a weekly. Nextgov’s Critical Update is now in its second season. The word of the day is podcasts for me.
Fred Diamond: I’m excited to have you on today’s podcast, you’ve given a lot of great answers but sales is hard and actually in your space. Again being a marketer for most of my career, even back in the 90’s and 2000’s we always had to show returns but it was hard to do because there wasn’t as much digital. A lot of it was events, a lot of it was print, those types of things, seminars. If you had a customer there, you could say it was a success but now with digital obviously you can measure everything. There’s tons of analytics coming out with everything so you have to keep proving that your platform and your offerings are optimal. Sales is hard, people don’t return your calls, a customer may know what they want to do already. What is it about sales, James, that has kept you going?
James Hanson: Not to be arrogant, but I’ve been successful at it.
Fred Diamond: There’s nothing wrong with that, my friend.
James Hanson: Success makes it all a little easier. It’s hard, work is hard and I think to be successful you have to work hard at it. That’s what makes it rewarding and going back to your first questions in terms of what excites me about what I’m doing today is the market that I’ve served and grown up in has made it rewarding in and of itself. I think any job, if you want to be successful, it’s going to be hard, you’ve got to work at it. If you find some place that you enjoy doing and supporting I think it makes it a lot easier. I know it’s a kind of cliché answer, but it’s the truth.
Fred Diamond: James, I want to thank you for being on today’s Sales Game Changers podcast. Why don’t you give us a final thought? We have listeners all around the globe, people who are interested in getting better at the science and art of selling, who really want to take their sales career to the next level. Give us a final thought to inspire them today.
James Hanson: Think like a customer. We’re all consumers, we consume different products and services but at the end of the day we want to make sure that we receive the value upfront in the sales process. Be honest, incredible, make sure your client understands what they’re receiving in return throughout the process. Make sure you check in to see how things are going, how they’re feeling, where you can help extend or provide more value afterwards and to thank you for their business and what can we do next. I don’t think sales is a process, I don’t think it’s a one-time transactional engagement, it’s a relationship and if you put yourself in the shoes of your customer, you better understand what that relationship means to them which then helps you build that.