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EPISODE 184: Vantage Data Center Sales Chief Lee Kestler Says This Advice He Gave His Leaders about Facebook Paid Off Long Term
LEE’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Negotiation isn’t about a winning and a losing part – negotiation is about winning for both sides. If you go into a conversation with a customer or you go into any type of interaction in life and you think about it that way, you’re probably going to be better off. Leave some money on the table for the next guy and keep moving.”
Lee Kestler is the Chief Commercial Officer at Vantage Data Centers.
He’s been in the data center space for 20 years.
Previously, he was involved with DuPont Fabros Technology (since purchased by Digital Realty), where he was very instrumental in bringing them to market and their success.
Find Lee on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us a little more about you that we need to know?
Lee Kestler: First, thank you for having me, I appreciate that and welcome to the Vantage Data Center Campus in Ashburn. One of the things that’s very interesting about my background outside of the data center space is I actually did not finish college. I tried to make a life as a pro soccer player, I wasn’t very good so I had to get a real job. I had to grind my way through sales careers starting in wireless and then of course moving into technology.
Fred Diamond: Actually, one of our first interviews was with Joe Alvarez. Did you ever come across Joe?
Lee Kestler: I saw the podcast.
Fred Diamond: In National Office Systems, he was a professional player for the Baltimore Indoor Team for a while, we had a great episode with him. It’s good to hear your story, I’m excited to have you here. We’re doing the interview from Vantage Data Center in Ashburn, it’s a nice opportunity to be in the building, it’s pretty impressive and we’ll talk about that. Tell us a little more about what you sell today and tell us what excites you about that.
Lee Kestler: Vantage data centers is one of the only wholesale data center providers in North America and the technology space has evolved so dramatically that when you start looking at what we’re doing on our phones and tablets and computers etcetera, the internet now has taken on a life of its own. Wholesale data centers themselves are the primary location where hyper scale or customers that can manage their own network and manage their own compute, instead of building their own data center, they lease space inside of a Vantage Data Center somewhere in North America.
Fred Diamond: How many locations do you have?
Lee Kestler: Currently we have 6 locations and we’re in North America exclusively right now with Montreal and Quebec City, the last two that we’ve added into the portfolio.
Fred Diamond: We have listeners all around the globe, again we do the Sales Game Changers podcast right outside of Washington DC, not too far from Dulles Airport. You’re not the only data center in the area, why are there so many data centers in this area?
Lee Kestler: That’s a very fair question because people do ask, “Why are there so many data centers here?” The reason that the industry started to flourish was not only was it proximity to Dulles Airport where there was a lot of power, but when AOL started which was less than 200 yards away from where we’re sitting today, most of the fiber optic cables that were put into the ground were put in along Waxpool and Route 28.
Fred Diamond: How did you first get into sales as a career?
Lee Kestler: I needed to earn a living and what I wanted to do was I wanted to be in sporting goods and I spent my early part of my career in sporting goods working for Puma and I was the mid-Atlantic sales rep for Puma calling on sporting goods stores and soccer specialty stores, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware. That’s how I got into sales, I was carrying a bag with shoe samples and going around the stores trying to get them to book orders.
Fred Diamond: How did you make the transition from selling sporting footwear to the technology to the data center spots?
Lee Kestler: It was an interesting transition because at the time, the sporting good business in the mid 90’s or so was really starting to wane. With the culmination of the Soccer World Cup in 1994 in the United States, I looked at that as an opportunity to exit and find something new to get into that had more of an upward hockey stick to it. I got into wireless, I went to work for Cellular One in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Fred Diamond: What were some of the key lessons you took away from some of your first few sales jobs?
Lee Kestler: I think the most important thing is to be authentic and to also learn that customers can find a way to self-educate so your role is to go in there not as the subject matter expert on what you have but as the subject matter expert to learn what they need.
Fred Diamond: A lot of people who listen to the Sales Game Changers podcast want to know who you’re selling to, so who are the types of titles, types of positions that would buy your services?
Lee Kestler: In the wholesale data center business there’s usually a team of decision makers because the product is bought in tens of millions of dollars at a time. There are network folks, CIO’s, there are vice president of data center operations, all those folks will weigh in on, “Is this the right location for me to put my network to be able to service customers over the internet?”
Fred Diamond: What are some of the factors that they would use to make their decisions?
Lee Kestler: Data centers themselves vary in size and in what they can feature. As I mentioned earlier, the type of data center that you’re in here today at Vantage is a wholesale data center where we provide the physical building, a lot of electricity that’s managed in a very environmentally efficient way – because it does cost money but we’re also good stewards of the environment – and access to network. I mentioned a minute or two ago about AOL being one of the first data centers that were in this region here. The availability of fiber optic cables to the data center is more important than the actual availability of the data center, because without network you don’t have a data center.
Fred Diamond: Tell us a little more about you, tell us what you’re an expert in. Tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
Lee Kestler: That’s a great question. I think one of the things that I specialize in is bringing a lot of smart people around me, I learned that a long time ago and the timing of this podcast is interesting because Ross Perot who I thought was a very admirable American and a great businessman recently passed away and he always said, “Show me somebody that’s failed several times and I’ll put them on my team.” I like to look for people that can help me be better than what I am, so I think my strength is finding those smart people and then allowing them to do their job and of course providing some sort of mentorship where it helps me get my job done.
Fred Diamond: I just have one more quick question. You mentioned that you wanted to become a professional soccer player at one point, I mentioned Joe before, we’ve interviewed a number of other athletes that have done really well in sales leadership. Is there anything that you’ve taken away from the soccer field that you put into your sales leadership?
Lee Kestler: I actually turned pro at 19 and I had various stints in and out of it but again, I always wanted to be in the business world. My career path through soccer really led me to the tenacity and the understanding of what it took to be in sales. You’re an individual contributor, but one of the things about this industry that we’re in today is it’s a complete team effort. You cannot be the subject matter expert for all the things that the customers who you’re going to interact with care about.
Fred Diamond: You’ve had a great career, why don’t you tell us about some of the mentors along the way who have guided you and have helped you get to this place?
Lee Kestler: There are a lot of people that I could give credit to. I would say one of the mentors – I’ll call him a mentor and I say it as a term of endearment – he’s never been a sales leader, he’s never been a sales manager but his name is Michael Shaw. I met Michael Shaw at Cellular One back in 1995, and Michael actually took over one of my roles at Cellular One when I moved into being a sales rep because I was in the channel program at the time. Since then we’ve stayed in contact, he actually brought me into the data center world with Exodus Communications back in February of ’99 and since then I’ve had a very fortunate career being around a lot of smart people that help me do well.
Fred Diamond: Lee, what are the two biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
Lee Kestler: I think one of them that we have to understand is something we can’t control, that deal flow can be lumpy. In sales or in revenue generation you always want to be able to forecast for a consistent track record in closures of sales or deals. It doesn’t work that way especially in the technology industry where the customers are self-educating and the sales process is usually driven by a large amount of capital expenditure approvals inside of a company and decisions that are not related to the direct purchase of the building. The network, the availability of power, what are the applications that need to run in the building, all of these things are complex so that makes the deal flow lumpy. I think the other opportunity too that we have here that’s a challenge is because the customers are self-educating, it’s very important for us on the selling side or the client relationship side to be good listeners.
Fred Diamond: I’ve got a question about that, that comes up not infrequently on the Sales Game Changers podcast. It’s been one of the challenges recognized by the Challenger Sale and other places that the customer can be self-educating, there’s a lot of information out there that they can get almost anything they need either from the internet or social networks, if you will. A lot of companies, for salespeople to be more successful these days, they need to really bring value, really significant value. What would be the value that someone who sells your type of services would bring to a customer to truly distinguish yourself?
Lee Kestler: Value in being able to work what we call here a contact plan. A contact plan would be recognizing the resources in a customer’s environment and making sure that we only address things that they truly care about, and being able to recognize what they’re trying to discover that can match what we’re able to provide. That’s probably the most important thing, I would say that it’s managing the contact plan.
Fred Diamond: Again, you’ve had a lot of successes along the way, you’ve worked for some great places. Take us back to the #1 specific sale success or win from your career you’re most proud of.
Lee Kestler: I worked in the data center space for Exodus before I moved on into the wholesale space and one of the accounts that I assumed was the GSA, General Services Administration. It was a very small portion of the business at Exodus and then what eventually became Savvis. With it being a small portion of business, it required a lot more complexity in the selling of the services because in the data center business you sell access to the building but at that time you also sell technical people like database administrators, network administrators, system administrators, etcetera, folks that can work on the application.
At the time, it was a very small part of the business for Exodus and then of course cable and wireless in Savvis was the evolution through bankruptcies at that time of the internet buzz. We grew that account from three people on site and roughly about $400 thousand dollars to over $14 million dollars. When I left Savvis they actually formed Savvis Federal Systems and staffed an entire team, that was a very important win in my career and there were a lot of people that participated. I got to be the quarterback and I like that role.
Fred Diamond: What do you most enjoy about your job? Again, you’re the Chief Commercial Officer at Vantage Data Center, we talked about some of the challenges, some of the opportunities. What do you personally like best about being a sales leader for a company like this?
Lee Kestler: I think one of the most valuable things for me on being a sales leader is I don’t have to stay up to speed on this constant evolution of technology like folks on the electrical side or the mechanical side or even Steve Conner who works for us as our Vice President of Solution Engineering. There are so many things that are out there that you have to stay up on, I’ve just got to stay up on top of the customer relationship and how we’re handling that and making sure the customer is getting the things that they need from us.
Fred Diamond: Did you ever question being in sales? Again, you started your career selling Puma shoes, you were a soccer player, you played some professional soccer. Did you ever think to yourself, “It’s too hard, it’s just not for me?”
Lee Kestler: No, I actually wonder why people don’t want to be in sales and they want to be behind a desk performing tasks. There’s nothing wrong with that, I admire that but the opportunity to go out and work with so many different smart people – listen, my goal is to retire before they found out the fraud that I was because there were so many smart people that I got to work with. When you look at the career that I’ve had, seeing Facebook before they were actually a big company and getting them as a customer, working with folks in the general service administration, that made things work for the government, that was their chief procurement. I’m very fortunate to be around a lot of those people.
Fred Diamond: You worked with Facebook before they became known as Facebook?
Lee Kestler: They were Facebook but they were still in the Palo Alto office, they had not expanded outside of their data centers in California which they had outsourced at the time to Digital Realty. The first big win was here in the Ashburn campus for Du Pont Fabros.
Fred Diamond: Tell us more about Facebook, when you got started with them did you foresee how big they were going to become? Obviously they own the world.
Lee Kestler: When I was interviewing for the job with Du Pont Fabros I said to Lammot and Hossein – Hossein Fateh was the CEO, Lammot du Pont was Chairman of the Board – I said, “Listen, you may not hire me but you better do a deal with these guys because this is going to take off.” I had some friends that were working at Facebook so I understood some of the momentum they had and it just felt like it was going to be that thing that was “the next thing.” It was pretty exciting to watch them grow and now I see some of the folks that worked there have moved onto other jobs or they’ve retired. It’s quite something to have been a part of.
Fred Diamond: Lee, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the selling professionals listening around the globe to take their sales career to the next level?
Lee Kestler: I think there are a few things that I could share that hopefully somebody would find value. One of them is a quote that I actually learned from a customer about 8 years ago, and the quote is “mixing disciplines is one of the most valuable things you can do in your career.” When I first heard that quote – and I’ll attribute it to Christian Belady who at the time was the General Manager at Data Centers at Microsoft, he and I are good friends today – I thought about that and there’s a lot of foundation in that for being in sales because if you don’t understand some of the things that a customer might be going through or people that are working in your company in accounting or in operations taking care of electrical equipment, if you don’t understand some of the challenges that the marketing team has then you’re probably not going to be very effective at being a leader. Mixing disciplines and learning about some of those things is probably the best thing you can do as a salesperson to be better at your career.
Fred Diamond: What would you suggest to the people listening on the podcast today to be able to achieve that? Schedule a lunch, coffee with people over the office, study, get to know, stay late?
Lee Kestler: Pay attention to your customers, pay attention to your coworkers and put yourself in their shoes. The one example I can give you out of the sporting good world was there were windows of time during the sale cycle that it was busy season, retail time, back to school. I would go work in my customer’s stores and I would sell whatever brand the customer wanted and on the way out the door I would take a fill in order for Puma. By being in the store, though I was able to get a better feel for the pressure that store owner had. I was able to try to manage my business of supporting them that made them a little bit more endeared to me than the next guy who showed up with just an order for them to take an order.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us about one of your sales habits that you’ve deployed to continue your success?
Lee Kestler: Basic blocking and tackIing. First thing you’ve got to do is you’ve got to show up and you need to show up on time and you need to show up ready to work. The other thing is be authentic, you’re not going to be able to pretend to be something that you’re not. What I mean by that is in the sales world you become very good at mirroring other folks and you become good at understanding an inch deep and a mile wide. Don’t allow your ability to communicate or articulate that because you’re a good speaker to let people believe that you’re actually smarter than you are. Give credit where credit is due and don’t insult the education and experience of a subject matter expert just because you can talk.
Fred Diamond: You mentioned listening before. What’s something you’ve done to become a better listener that our people listening to the podcast can also deploy?
Lee Kestler: I like to listen to the folks who are going to speak first in the meeting and that is a very hard thing to do, because when you go into a meeting with a customer or even into a sales management meeting it’s your tendency to want to open the meeting and tell everybody what’s going on. “Hi, Mr. Customer I’ve got a lot to talk to you about with what I’m doing in my company.” That’s really not what it is, you need to start the conversation with, “Hey Mr. Customer, thanks for letting me come in, how are things going?” That’s about as simple as you can get and that crosses the chasm of any industry.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success.
Lee Kestler: At Vantage because we’re one of the only wholesale providers in North America, we’re working on trying to make sure that the industry understands who Vantage is. Vantage, while we’ve been around for about 9 years, we’ve resurrected ourselves from what used to be a Silicon Valley data center provider in one of the most prominent markets and a leader at the time to now a North American provider with multiple locations. We’re really working hard to reinvent the name Vantage of what it means in the data center space and to communicate who we are and what problems we solve and who we solve them for.
Fred Diamond: In summary, how would you position Vantage?
Lee Kestler: Vantage is the data center provider that if you can manage your own compute and you can manage your own network and you don’t want to build a building for more than $100 million dollars, you should lease some space with us. Give us a call.
Fred Diamond: Lee, before we conclude today’s Sales Game Changers podcast, you’ve given us a lot of great information, I greatly appreciate it. Sales is hard, people don’t return your phone calls, you mentioned a couple times that the customer can get their information on their own. They can go to the internet, go to social networks to find answers to their questions. Why have you continued? What is it about sales as a career that has kept you going?
Lee Kestler: Because it’s all about the kids. I say that a lot and the reason I use that cliché is as we continue to evolve as a society we’re always trying to make improvements for the next generation. I think if you pay attention to what you’re doing today and realize you’ve got to leave something on the table for the next person that’s coming behind you, “it’s all about the kids” works.
Fred Diamond: Lee, you’ve given us some great information, I greatly appreciate it. Why don’t you give us one final thought? We have Sales Game Changers listening around the globe to today’s podcast, give us one final thought to inspire them today.
Lee Kestler: Negotiation isn’t about a winning and a losing part, negotiation is about winning for both sides. If you go into a conversation with a customer or you go into any type of interaction in life and you think about it that way, you’re probably going to be better off. Leave some money on the table for the next guy and keep moving.