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EPISODE 194: Microsoft Federal Sales GM Javier Vasquez Discloses the Transformation Lessons His Sales Organization, Company and Customers Have Learned Together
JAVIER’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Be tenacious. Just try, try, try. You’re going to hear ‘no’ more than you hear ‘yes’ when you first start in your career and I know it sounds painful now, but that is where and how you learn. Get back up and do it again, and practice, practice, practice.”
Javier Vasquez is the General Manager for solutions and technology for Microsoft’s US Federal Government business.
He’s been with Microsoft for 19 years. Prior to coming to Microsoft, he was at Digital Equipment Corporation and a handful of medical startups.
Find Javier on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: Javier, it’s great to have you on the Sales Game Changers podcast. We previously interviewed a former employee at Microsoft, Christine Barger, who gave us a great interview. We actually did the interview in this office, so it’s a great story and I’m looking forward to the continuation of the story. Why don’t you tell us a little more about you that we need to know?
Javier Vasquez: Thanks, Fred and thank you for selecting me to have a discussion this morning. I’ll begin with a little bit about myself. I’m a father, a husband, I have two lovely children, a 13 and a 16 year old, live here in the Arlington, Virginia area. I’m probably one of those few folks that would consider themselves native to the DC area, I’ve been here since I was about a year old, 1971. I meet many people around the DC area and I guess I’m one of those rare birds that actually has grown up in the area.
Fred Diamond: Microsoft has its arms in a lot of things, obviously, especially now. Tell us what you sell today and tell us what excites you about that.
Javier Vasquez: Our mission statement at Microsoft is to empower every person in every organization to do more. How that really relates to the US federal market is pretty clear, I look at us as empowering missions of all of our federal customers, whether that’s in civilian government, defense or in the intelligence community. Folks know us very well for our Windows and Office products, but what they probably know us a lot less for is our cloud products and some of the enablement we do in terms of driving the mission with our customers. I’m really proud of the work that we’ve done, at least in my tenure here in the last 19 years of really helping our customers achieve their mission and helping them do more. I look at our corporate mission as well-aligned to what we do very personally here in the DC area.
Fred Diamond: Have you always sold to the federal marketplace?
Javier Vasquez: No, I’ve done federal, state and local and then healthcare earlier in my career. Pretty much a really deep commitment to the public sector, I get a lot of energy from working with our public sector customers.
Fred Diamond: We have Sales Game Changers listening around the globe and we’ve interviewed a number of people who serve the federal marketplace. Tell us why that particular marketplace is interesting to you. You mentioned the mission, what is it about the mission that really resonates with you?
Javier Vasquez: For me, what I really like serving our public sector customers and especially our government customers is just the impact that I see that it makes to everyone more broadly than just the organization itself. I have many stories of us helping child welfare organizations, helping the military with spouses, helping disabled veterans and just being able to see, “Wow, I was part of that.” I’m not one to say that I was the leader or did it, but to be part of an organization that participated in the success and driving success is really heartwarming. There are times when I was from our state and local business to our federal business where I showed my kids and my wife and friends like, “I was part of that, it was really exciting and here’s the backstory of how we really helped the customer out.” That’s what really energizes me. Obviously DC being a government town, lots of examples for us to really make a success in the local as well as the broader community.
Fred Diamond: Let’s go back to the beginning of your career. Tell us how you first got into sales.
Javier Vasquez: My career is a little bit non-linear. I was kind of pulled into sales. I was pre-med, my father was a surgeon so I was predisposed – if anyone else has a father that’s a medical professional, you’re kind of going to be a doctor and no other career. As it turns out, I took a part-time job in the evening doing technical support for a little local healthcare company and I always had a predilection for working with technology, it was always a lot of fun. In my career there I went from help desk to working with customers more directly. I used to have long hair, earrings, the rock and roll electro lifestyle as it was back in the 90’s.
One day my boss came up to me, a mentor of mine and goes, “Javier, I want to get you on the road, I want you to cut your hair and I’m going to pay you X amount” – which seems like a little bit of money nowadays but it seemed like a lot back then – “and I want to get you in front of customers and we’re going to really drive some success together.” I cut my hair, took on the role, my mother showed up at the office embarrassingly a few days later to give my CEO a cake because she’d been trying to get me to get my hair cut for a while. I kind of got pulled into it, didn’t necessarily think I was going to go into sales, I didn’t think I was going to go into tech. I remember years ago when I told my father that I wasn’t going to go to med school and I wanted to stay in technology he said to me, “Technology? There’s no future in computers, you’re going to sit in a cube all day and work on computers? No, you don’t want to do that, son. There’s no future in tech.”
Before he passed away many years ago, I had the ability to have that conversation with him again and he’s a stubborn old man, so he never fully recanted it, but he said I did alright so I was happy about that.
Fred Diamond: I think Microsoft has made its mark.
Javier Vasquez: It’s done okay.
Fred Diamond: It’s done well. Anyway, you cut your hair, you went on the road with your boss there. What were some of the key lessons that you learned from some of those first few sales jobs that have stuck with you till today?
Javier Vasquez: Listen. I had the privilege of working for a fantastic gentleman, he was a serial entrepreneur, his name was Rick Cameron and he taught me a couple of things. One, listen, listen to what the customer has to say, learn from them. I know especially as younger sales professionals you have the desire to jump in mid-sentence, that you want to interrupt the customer because you have such great ideas you want to share, but the opposite is true. You listen, they want to talk about themselves and their problems and in many ways they want to find the undiscovered truth they’re not aware of that they have a problem with, so let them talk.
The second lesson which I take to heart even to this very day, culture. If you don’t build a good culture within your sales organization, you’re going to be reticent to bring up the hard problems and to brainstorm together to go drive even more sales and try to figure out how we can service our customers even better.
Fred Diamond: Back to listening, that comes up not infrequently on the Sales Game Changers podcast. Again, we have a lot of emerging sales leaders listening to the podcast around the globe, give us a couple tips on how they can be better listeners.
Javier Vasquez: I would say practice. It’s funny because I’ve had this conversation extremely recently. In your social groups if you’re early in your career, as you and your friends are talking, we all love to talk about our stories. I challenge you as you’re in your social setting, let your friends speak until they’re done speaking and then jump in with your insight. It’s actually very hard to do and I still find myself today even with my children struggling to hold back because I’m the dad and I know best, but it’s practicing that skill of just listening and holding back.
The second thing is be an active listener. We all have a tendency as the customer or as the partner is speaking to think about how to solve their problem. I listen and at least when I speak to customers or partners, repeat back in my head something that I thought was an important point, and repeat that in my head versus practicing what I’m going to respond to the customer with.
Fred Diamond: That’s a great thing. One of the other great lessons I learned that makes you a better listener is ask if you can take notes and ask the question from a positive perspective. “Can I take notes during this meeting?” It does a couple things. Usually the customer is going to say, “Yes, of course.” Don’t say, “Do you mind if I take notes?” Because then they’re going to say no, but say, “Can I take notes in this meeting?” Then that also shows them that you’re interested in what they have to say.
Javier Vasquez: Absolutely correct.
Fred Diamond: What are you an expert in? Again, you’ve been with Microsoft for 19 years. Tell us about your specific area of brilliance.
Javier Vasquez: I would say ‘brilliance’ is funny to me, but something that I think I’m proud of that I do well is culture, building an organization that encourages risk taking, encourages mistakes and learning and encourages honest feedback and honest perspective sharing. I think that so many times it’s such a fast paced environment that we work in, that we neglect the time to think about the people around us and what impacts them, and how we can make them more successful and giving them the space to make mistakes. I think that is absolutely important, especially newer in career, go take a chance, take a risk, see what comes of it. If it doesn’t work, what did you learn?
We have the luxury of being a bit of a larger company so we have probably a little bit more flex in making mistakes, but I tell you, when I look at my newer in career folks, I talk to them 5 to 7 years later, one thing I hear over and over again like, “What did you learn?” they say, “You allowed me to make mistakes and it allowed me to learn. If I didn’t make those mistakes I would have never…” or, “If I wasn’t given the space to make a mistake and recover, I’m not sure I would have had the success that I have today.”
Fred Diamond: Let me ask you about Microsoft for a second here. Again, you’ve been here for 19 years, you’re a general manager, again you run solutions and technology for the US federal business, that’s got to be a huge market that you’re serving.
Javier Vasquez: Yes, it’s significant. [Laughs]
Fred Diamond: Talk about Microsoft. Why is someone who is in first or second job that’s looking for the next sales job, why would they want to come to a company like Microsoft?
Javier Vasquez: Breadth of impact. It’s plain and simple for me. We’re uniquely positioned that we have such a broad portfolio of capabilities, everything from hardware devices to cloud to on-premises to consulting to research and development. We’re in a unique position to do things that very few companies in the world can do, so just the breadth of impact you can make. I know that we actively recruit folks out of college, we have a program called Aspire and I actively participate in that and I hear that question, “Why would I come?” I say breadth of impact.
You can go to smaller companies and you’re going to have a lot of fun, do something really specific, you’re going to go to go to our competitors and they’re going to have their offering, but I challenge you to find a company that left to right offers just what we offer in the market. Why that’s important for a young sales professional is sometimes early in your career you’re not sure what you’re really good at or love to sell and coming into a Microsoft allows you to day, “I thought I really was good at product sales, but I want to do more of a consultative services sale” or, “Actually, maybe I want to do something more on the marketing side of the house.” We have that breadth of opportunity that’s, I think, unique for your young sales professionals out there.
Fred Diamond: Again, I’ve mentioned this a number of times, you’ve been with Microsoft for 19 years, almost two decades. You must have worked with some amazing people, why don’t you tell us an impactful sales career mentor and how they impacted your career?
Javier Vasquez: Within the company I’ll share a mentor and then I’ll share a mentor that I mentioned earlier. There was a fellow, Michael Donlan, incredible Vice President. He is now at Apple and runs public sector at Apple so I’m really excited for his success over there. He was non-classical, like I was, he came from a technology background mostly and became really good at proving value to others. I came to work for his organization, he ran the state and local business at the time. I came to work in his business and one thing I just learned from him was making sure as a sales leader that you had your operations down tight because tight operations gives you the flexibility to experiment. When you have the ability to say, “Here’s how I’m going to take a risk and I can quantify it”, it gives you the ability to go to your leadership and senior leadership to say, “I want an investment here, here’s why I have my ship run really tightly, take a chance on me.” It really gave you the flexibility to lead.
Second thing that Mike taught me was to be genuine, be yourself. When you go into sales leadership, I think a mistake a lot of folks make is that I have to look and appear a certain way, I have to dress a certain way, I have to speak a certain way and Mike was really good at just, “Be you, you have charisma and it’s different than everyone else, but people follow that.” He was quirky and he was a little different and I just respected the heck out of him for that. Although our styles are different, I took that to heart. He was really important to me in this company.
Fred Diamond: You mentioned there was someone actually outside of the company.\
Javier Vasquez: Yes, a fellow I mentioned earlier, Rick Cameron, a serial entrepreneur. He was for many years, even though I left the company we worked for ages ago, I would check in with him from time to time. He’s just so smart and no matter which business he started up, it really came down to the culture of the company and do what’s right for your customer even if it’s a short term hit. Do what’s right for your customer because in the end, the benefits are just going to be 5x-10x what you get initially.
Fred Diamond: I’m curious, after having been mentored by those two leaders how would you describe yourself as a sales leader? Are you hands-on, are you forceful, do you let things happen? How would you describe yourself?
Javier Vasquez: For me, the way I look at the way I lead sales organizations really comes down to allowing folks the room. Have clear expectations in terms of what I expect out of them, but give them the room and the space to actually figure out how they’re going to get there. I think the world is transforming and evolving so quickly, the way that I sold 5-10 years ago is completely not applicable today, so I don’t have the genius to say what is really going to work 5 or 10 years from now. I give my leaders and give the sales folks the ability to experiment and try new things, but the most important thing coming out of that is, “What did you learn if something didn’t go right?” Then pick yourself back up and go right at it. From a leadership style it’s, “I have a clear set of expectations, this is what we need for success. How you get there is a little bit less important to me, but I want to make sure I see passion and tenacity to reach those results.”
Fred Diamond: What are the two biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
Javier Vasquez: Transformation. It’s really interesting, in the federal space I would say in the last 4 to 6 years our customers have started embracing cloud technology really deeply. That’s really created a whole new set of scenarios that I’ve never had a thought about. How do I contract? Which is extremely difficult. How do I contract for labor? What are the new capabilities that I’ve never had in the past? Having that conversation with customers in a transformative perspective is really tough because their mind isn’t quite there yet. Our sales reps are still developing that skill in some cases, so making sure that transformation is top of mind to our customers.
Fred Diamond: Is there another challenge you want to address as well?
Javier Vasquez: We’ve changed our culture quite a bit and using culture as an asset when you go to our customer. “As you’ve transformed, we’ve been through our own internal transformation” and going back to your challenge it’s, “What did we learn from that cultural transformation we’re still in and how do we impart that knowledge to you, customer, in terms of your personal transformation?” As much as it’s a challenge, it’s become an asset for us.
Fred Diamond: Would you mind telling us about that transformation?
Javier Vasquez: Absolutely. In the long history of Microsoft, we’re pretty famous for the Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer era which was pretty much, “Sell as much product to your customer as possible, make sure every desktop, every PC is fully covered with every piece of product.” That works up until a certain point when you’ve had deep success in the market. The problem with that is that we never actually took the time during this period to learn what the customer’s problems were – the best sellers did, but many of our sellers and culturally it was about, “We have the best product, just buy it.” What’s really changed for us and having new leadership with Satya really empowered us to say to ourselves, “The way that we’re going to be successful in the next 10, 20, 50 years is radically different from the last 10-20.” Working backwards from the customer, “Customer, what are your challenges?”
Be empathetic, listen and deeply listen, then from there propose things that we can do to help them. The new way of selling isn’t always about getting the Big Bang deal. It used to be success was the 8-9 figure deal, now I reward success for those initial wins. “Great, we had a customer, we did something really small but it was really impactful.” From there we build the trust and the confidence with our customers to then demand the next piece of business or ask for the next piece of business. That’s a big transformation for our sales force.
Fred Diamond: Speaking about that, why don’t you take us back to the #1 sales success or win from your career you’re most proud of?
Javier Vasquez: I’d probably pivot on that question away from my successes, but just the number of successes that I’ve had with my teams. I think the thing that I would say I’m most proud of is the culture of the organizations that I’ve been privileged to run, and from success is the things that they actually accomplished out of that in terms of state. When I was in the state and local business being able to reduce transaction costs and times for women and infant children, that meant another 7% or 8% we could cover with the same amount of budget from the state, 7% or 8% more women and infant children that needed benefits. From my work with the Defense Department and the VA being able to really help disabled vets and realize their potential on rehabilitation.
Each one of those are wins, it’s really hard to say which one I’m most proud of, I’m just proud that I was part of a culture that enabled all these great things to happen.
Fred Diamond: Before we take a short break, I want to ask you one last question. Again, you mentioned that great story when you cut your hair and then you moved into sales. Did you ever think back to yourself, “You know what? It’s too hard, I wish I had the long hair again and go sit in a cube and do tech support” or, “Maybe I made a mistake not going into med school”? What do you think about your sales career? Again, do you think to yourself, “It’s too hard” and do you ever think to yourself, “It’s just not for me”?
Javier Vasquez: Never over a second do I ever think that it’s too hard, I made the wrong choice. I am lucky that I had really great people nudge me and see my inner potential when I didn’t see it and pushed me in the right direction. I’ve absolutely been privileged, I love it, I love the energy, I love how new it is, the challenges every day are different. Like I said, I’m just blessed that someone pushed me in the right direction when I was at a critical point in my life and just having a blast doing it.
Fred Diamond: Javier, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the junior selling professionals to help them improve their career?
Javier Vasquez: I would say it really is two things. One is tenacity, just try, try, try. You’re going to hear ‘no’ more than you hear ‘yes’ when you first start in your career and I know it sounds painful now, but that is where you learn, that is how you learn. Just tenacity, get back up and do it again, practice, practice, practice.
The second part of that is as you’re learning, solicit feedback and input. Go into a meeting and ask the folks, whether it’s the pre-sales engineer next to you or your manager or even the customer, “How did I do? What can I do better?” It’s so important, and give yourself the opportunity to take feedback. Some of these things are very subtle, from body posture to the expression on your face saying, “I want to hear feedback” because I know people feel like they’re asking for feedback but if you’re giving the body language that you don’t want to hear feedback, you’re not going to get it. Really receiving and internalizing feedback, those two things, tenacity and being open and creating the space for other people to give you feedback.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us about a selling habit that has led to your sales success?
Javier Vasquez: Make sure when you go into a customer, you know the customer and well. I think what’s really important about that is knowing the customer’s mission, knowing what is important to the person on the other side of the table that you’re speaking to. Part of that is really recognizing the fact that people don’t buy anything from Microsoft, people buy from people, people buy from Javier and Fred and Joan and Sally, and they want to buy from someone they trust and they know or feel they have a connection with. Be prepared when you go in a customer conversation whether it’s their mission or knowing a little bit about them. “Their daughter plays in the lacrosse team, my daughter plays in the lacrosse team, how’s that tournament going?” Just making that connection because that allows you to bring barriers down and walls that allow you to have a deeper conversation insight in what’s important to your customer.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success.
Javier Vasquez: Obviously cloud is huge everywhere across the board, but I think really for us the pivot on cloud is about what are the things that the customers and our government organizations can do uniquely in the cloud? And I challenge our sales force, I challenge our engineering folks to say, “What is it that they could not do unless they were doing it in the cloud?” We have examples in Department of Energy, we’re doing stuff around artificial intelligence and some other research and engineering because of the scale of what we have and we’re uniquely positioned to do. I’m really proud of those kind of moments, those are the things that we need to do more of that we are uniquely positioned to do in the cloud. That’s a big challenge.
Fred Diamond: I have a quick question. Before we ask you for your final thoughts, you just mentioned a few moments ago that people don’t buy from Microsoft, that they buy from you. Is it easier or harder to be a sales professional at Microsoft today? What I mean by that is again, you sell to the government but people are looking for alternative vendors and a lot of vendors have been popping up but again, Microsoft is probably one of the top 3 companies in the history of technology. Tell us a little more about that. Doors obviously get open, again you’re selling to the federal space, I remember hearing that the federal customer was Microsoft’s biggest customer and Ballmer had access to some of the top people in the government. Tell us about that, about selling to Microsoft. It can’t be a hindrance, it’s got to be a helpful thing for you.
Javier Vasquez: Generally it’s helpful. The door does get open, it goes without saying but we have an obligation to our customers to do more. Just because the door is open it doesn’t mean that we can just simply expect the customer to see our value proposition, but as I mentioned, because of the breadth of what we come to the table with, there’s an expectation that we’re really going to offer material value in a very quick time to market for the customer. So is it easier to get the door open? Yes, but it’s also easier to have the door closed on if you don’t come in with your A-game and show value to the customer as quickly as possible. It’s easier to get the door open, easier to get the door closed so you really have that obligation to do the right thing when you talk to the customer.
Fred Diamond: What is it about sales as a career, though that has kept you going?
Javier Vasquez: Energy. It is never constant, it is always changing and I tell you, 10 years ago if I told you what my priorities were today, I couldn’t have predicted them. I’m sure Satya or someone much smarter than I could have, but just the amount of energy and just passion around it. When I look at sales, it’s a push-pull with our customers and our government organizations. We challenge our government customers to do things they normally wouldn’t have thought about which helps them evolve and be more reactive to their end customers and citizens and constituency, so that’s what I really love about it. We make the government better, we help our customers that we work with better because we’re creating a little bit of positive tension from the do some new things.
Fred Diamond: You’ve given us some great insights today, I want to thank you again, Javier Vasquez for being on the Sales Game Changers podcast. You’ve given us so many great ideas here and a lot of clarity, too about what it’s like to sell for Microsoft, again which has got to be one of the top 3 technology companies in history. There’s probably been tens of thousands of people you’ve sold and everybody knows the name but you made a great point. You guys offer so many things now that how does the customer truly understand all the things that you offer, especially with the transformation? Give us one final thought. Again, we have Sales Game Changers listening around the globe, people that are peers of yours and people that want to have your job in 5-10 years. Why don’t you give us one final thought to inspire them today?
Javier Vasquez: I would say one word, culture. Whether you’re a leader or whether you’re an individual contributor, be part of a positive learning culture to help you and your peers to be more successful. I think that creates the space for new ideas and creativity and I see the rewards. It sounds hokey but I’ve seen it in action, and really that positive learning culture will pay dividends in the medium and long term, for sure.