EPISODE 620: Public Sector Sales Insights with KPMG’s Lorna Stark

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Lorna Stark is the National Sector Leader for Government at KPMG US. Find her on LinkedIn.

LORNA’S TIP: “Make sure that you’re building new relationships, that you’re maintaining your existing relationships, and that you’re also transferring your relationships to others. It’s really important to think about that holistically from the very beginning of your career. For me, I didn’t really realize the importance of maintaining the relationships until maybe I was 5 to 10 years in. It’s especially important in government, for those who are selling in the public sector.”


Gina Stracuzzi: Welcome, Lorna. Lorna Stark is with KPMG. She is a government sector leader.

Lorna Stark: Thank you so much, Gina and Fred. It’s great to be here with you both today. I have been with KPMG for my entire career, which is coming up on almost 34 years. I’ve spent all of my time in those 34 years working with governments at the federal, state, and local level, mostly at the state and local level. I’ve really seen pretty much everything you could think that you could see in government, I think, anyway, in those 33 years. I’ve been based upstate in our Albany office, and I’ve also been in our New York City office, which is where I am now for almost 30 years now. Right now I have a few different roles within KPMG, one, which you mentioned, is the national sector leader for our government business, which encompasses all of our functions and all of our layers and levels of government. It’s a pretty exciting role for me. But I also have a lead partner role with the city of New York, which is where I do most of my direct selling. I’m excited to talk about from both perspectives, selling into the market.

Gina Stracuzzi: Well, this is great because we have a lot of public sector listeners, some who work at the state level and some who work at the national level. I’m sure you’ll have a lot to add to that. Why don’t you talk to us a little bit about some of the current trends that you see happening in state or national government? I know that you do a lot of work around changing how government does business. What can you tell us about where you think things are heading?

Lorna Stark: I think things are heading towards even more modernization of how governments deliver services. I also see a trend that I’d really love to hear from listeners, if they are seeing this as well, of how government is more and more rising to the surface or being recognized as really critical and important to everyday things that happen in anyone’s life. Not just the typical public services that you think of, but the way that we transact buying and selling a house, buying and selling a car, and that those things at some point touch a government agency and a government service. The velocity of technology and the changes in technology are making it much more critical for governments to be able to implement technology so that they can stay current.

As we like to say, a lot of times, to leapfrog. Governments initially in the ‘50s and ‘60s were the leaders in big technology and implementing the largest computer systems back in the day. Definitely have fallen behind what we see out in the commercial industry space in how technology’s been adopted and used. COVID has really helped us to get governments more on track. But I think we’re seeing a little bit of settling. At the same time, technology is accelerating. Selling this idea of how do we get governments to leapfrog back into a leadership role around how technology is used to deliver public services is something that really excites me and I hope it’s being seen by others.

Gina Stracuzzi: It makes me wonder in these sometimes heated debates you get into with folks who feel like government is already too big and into too many things within our private lives. Yet I can see how if the government isn’t up to speed and isn’t using the latest technology, and my husband, he does a lot of work with government organizations, agencies, and updating their infrastructure, it is sometimes relics. Big leftovers. We do need a government that’s operating at the highest capacity in everyday life, but I can see how some people will be like, “We don’t need them in our business anymore.” But it sounds like this is all very helpful stuff.

Lorna Stark: The, “We don’t need them in our business anymore,” I’m really worried about that actually. Not just from a sales and business perspective, of course, but just the idea that government could be replaced or become obsolete in certain types of transactions, where today they’re really integral. In today’s world, one of the most prevalent places where you see that is space and Starlink, and what’s happening in the whole satellite space business is much more commercialized now and will be even more so in the future than it was originally.

It’s funny how space and government use of technology went hand in hand. We were the first, government led us to the moon, if you will. They did that with a big, huge computer, which was the first time a big, huge computer was used. Now, everything is flipped over. The commercial side of that business is so much more significant than what government is driving. Do we want other things to go in that direction? Maybe in some cases that would be a good thing. But just bringing this back to the whole idea of sales, it’s one of the things that makes it maybe more challenging to sell in government. Partly I would say that is because governments have a lot of muscle memory and they tend to do things the way they’ve done them for a very long time.

Now, government’s not the only bureaucracy out there. We know that. We all probably work for another type of bureaucracy. But government really does have that muscle memory, which always interests me over my 30 plus years because we change administrations every four to eight years and people move around and throughout the different agencies and go from one level of government to another. But that muscle memory of the procurement process in government has not really changed a lot in my 30 plus years. I’m sure it didn’t change for the 30 years before that either. It’s another area where it’d be really great to see more modernization on government’s part to really think through how do you procure in a government setting in a modern way.

Interestingly enough, I have a client that I visit quite frequently in Texas. I won’t name any names, but I was just there a couple of weeks ago and we went to one of our typical meetings, check in, see how he’s doing, what’s coming up next on his agenda, what we might sell to him next. Of course, he knows we’re there to sell something eventually. He said, “I give my team members a white paper exercise every once in a while.” His white paper exercise of the quarter, or the month, if you will, was, “I asked them to figure out how we could reinvent procurement without breaking the laws.” I said, “That’s brilliant. When you get the assignment back, could you share it with everybody?” because this is exactly how I love to talk with my government clients that say things like that, that are thinking, “Okay. We just need to start with a blank sheet of paper. We need to work within the guardrails that we have, but we also need to make it better, faster, more efficient, get more value for our money.”

Gina Stracuzzi: It’s interesting, I was in government contracting from the sales side working with small businesses, and it just floored me that the process was, one, just heavy, and muscle memory is a really good way to visualize that. But in trying to do business with small businesses, they would still make them do the same exact process as if they had a huge team to put together proposals, which is really not helping anybody. Because if you got a small shop, everything stops to put that proposal together. It’s not something that’s tenable for any length of time. You really have to have the big guys with you, which is why I think sometimes you get that same kind of mentality of a big bureaucracy. When you’ve got an IBM, let’s say, dealing with the government, you’ve got two huge bureaucracies trying to work together. I love that you’re working in an area that is trying to modernize that and simplify it in some ways. Tell me a little bit about where you see opportunities career-wise in what you are doing for women.

Lorna Stark: That’s a great question. I don’t often think about the differences between our women and our men professionals within KPMG. But one of the areas where you can see some differences in approaches and how someone is successful or someone is not, I think there maybe is a difference in the sales arena, because selling is not something that everyone is comfortable with. We say, and I like to say too, sales is everyone’s job. We all need to be doing some level of sales. But for a person whose entire job is sales, especially in the public sector, that takes a lot of commitment, dedication, and patience, which I think in general, women have more patience than men do. I don’t know if I’m going to get in trouble for saying that. Hopefully not.

Gina Stracuzzi: No, that’s okay. It gets said a lot.

Lorna Stark: In the public sector that patience is really important, because as we were just saying, governments don’t always move very quickly or very rarely move quickly. There’s a lot of details to have to pay attention to. I think you need a salesperson that’s detail-oriented, that has the patience, that has the persistence to keep at something. Because you might be selling the same deal for maybe two years, depending on what it is.

Gina Stracuzzi: Statistically, it’s proven that women are better at sales.

Lorna Stark: Good. I’m glad you have the statistics [laughs].

Gina Stracuzzi: Sometimes other things get in our way, just speaking from a gender specific reality that sometimes while we’re more doggedly determined in some fashions, and maybe it’s just the nature of how men and women are raised, or what we come up with genetically, well, who knows, but we don’t tend to take great risks and put ourselves out there. These are generalizations obviously.

Lorna Stark: That’s very true, Gina. A few years ago, I think it was actually before COVID, one of our annual studies or surveys around women in professional areas actually have the same result that you just said, that women are less likely to take risks, especially in their career. But if their career is sales, then of course it’s going to take a really special person and a woman to be really successful in sales, because you do have to take some risks, you have to place some bets, and the more often you get that bet correct, the more motivated you are to keep going.

Another thing that I think, and maybe you’ll have some statistics on this too, is that sales, especially in the public sector, but across the board, takes relationships. If you don’t have a relationship, you are much less likely to get the sale, get the win. Because people buy from people. In the end, if you don’t know anyone who’s sitting on the other side of the table, or you’re looking at a proposal with all these resumes and maybe have pictures of the people, if you don’t know anybody, it’s much harder to say, “That team I know is going to do a good job.” That’s why my job is making sure there’s brand awareness and our brand is thought very highly of in the government market is so important, but you can only go so far with your brand and with your name. It has to have some relationships underneath it to really be successful. I think women are better at relationships, because again, we’re more patient, we’re more persistent, we know these things don’t happen overnight.

Another thing that we always teach our teams about selling is you have to have some empathy and you have to be able to be a little bit vulnerable when you’re selling or building a relationship, because that’s how you make that connection and that’s how you build the trust and the relationship. Again, I think probably studies would show women do those things a little bit better than men, or maybe a lot better than men, I don’t know. It’s interesting, maybe more women should be in sales. Maybe we should say, “Hey, this is probably a better path.”

Gina Stracuzzi: Well, I’ll tell you that the companies that we work with the most, and they’re big companies, the Salesforces and the AWSs, and Intels, and Oracle, and all of those, they are all working overtime to build up their sales teams with women. The problem is the retention and it’s when women run into the roadblocks that need them to take those chances that they’re not really comfortable taking, or some of these bureaucracies you can get into that leap over to companies too, they’re still highly male-driven and it’s not that there’s anything malicious happening, it’s just a culture that is built around a more patriarchal format, and so they don’t find their footing.

Companies are really working hard and that’s what the PWISE designation that IES put out just the first round a few months ago, and it’s companies that have been vetted to really say, “Look, this is a great place for women to work.” They put their money where their mouth is and here’s this designation to prove it kind of thing, so that women can find their way to those companies. Because when they do, when they get themselves into an environment that works, there’s no stopping them. That’s really what companies want, and the government is requiring it of companies. There’s got to be not just more gender equity, there has to be greater involvement.

Lorna Stark: More diversity overall.

Gina Stracuzzi: Yes, exactly. More diversity of marginalized groups and just all of it. I think part of that transformation that you’re speaking about will be that too, is what a really effective sales team is going to look like in 10 years is going to be fascinating.

Lorna Stark: That’s a really interesting idea, Gina, is what does sales look like in the future? We know that the products and solutions that we’re all selling will be very different and what will be different as well is how we sell them and who’s selling them. We don’t really give a lot of thought to thinking about sales in the future. We give a lot of thought to what will we be selling in the future, but not how and who will be selling it.

Gina Stracuzzi: I think the companies that don’t think about it are going to be playing catch up. It’s not to say that KPMG somewhere along in that big company is not thinking about it. But it may not be something that’s talked about at every level. It is really interesting to be part of this, to be helping companies get women ready for greater promotions, which is what we do with the forum, it’s making sure that women don’t get stuck at mid-management. It is so interesting to listen to the women talk about what they encounter dealing with the government, not bad stuff necessarily, just challenges. It’s really eye-opening for someone who hasn’t worked for the government for a while. On a state level, because we have a lot of SLED listeners, and a lot of them are women. We’ve had a lot of really fascinating guests on our leading SLED areas of their companies, and that seems a little more nimble sometimes than the federal government. Do you see that in your work too?

Lorna Stark: I don’t know if I would say more nimble. I think you just have to know where to look and it’s harder to find the right place to sell into sometimes in the SLED space. At the federal level, I think things are much more well-defined and there’s big contract vehicles, and I think even though it’s a bigger market from a dollar perspective, agency to agency at the federal level, it’s easier to navigate. When you get to a state level or a local government level, and if you’re trying to sell to multiple states and local governments, you’ve got to figure out what each one of their processes are. You’ve got to figure out what each one of their contracting vehicles are. You’ve got to really understand and meet with 40 different C-suite groups across 40 different agencies. I think it’s just more complex altogether to sell into the SLED space.

Gina Stracuzzi: What kind of programs do you see happening there in SLED that are of interest to everyday people that are in maybe let’s just say sales, because most of our audience is, but what do you see happening in SLED that’s you think groundbreaking, if anything?

Lorna Stark: I don’t know if I would say I see something right now that’s groundbreaking. But another conversation that we had last week with several health and human service agency CIOs, the whole conversation was about generative AI and what would be the impact to state governments, and in particular human services, social services type agencies and programs. The views were very different from, we should go really slow because we don’t really know the power of this technology yet. We want to do it right and in the right way. To others, they are really excited because they’ve seen something really exciting and what the technology can do. They have these different views at both ends of the spectrum. I think this is going to be a big trend in how we help our clients, especially in the SLED space, to understand, and govern, and regulate, and control how the new technologies are brought into a government arena to help deliver government services to the public and even to do back office type of things as well within government.

Those who get it right without tampering it down, but let it really blossom and create opportunity, and modernization, and transformation in all the positive ways, they’re going to be the big winners. The salespeople out there that can help their clients guide them through that path as to how to do this in a way that allows it to be a very positive thing and a huge improvement. Again, back to the beginning of our conversation, really helping governments to keep their place in the world to make sure that they aren’t made obsolete or not pushed out of a certain process or transaction because they just don’t have the technology to match what’s happening outside of government.

Gina Stracuzzi: That’s a really fascinating thought too, Lorna, because of the behemoth nature of government, even at state levels, and the muscle memory that makes it move slower and with a great deal more let’s say concerned about the outcomes. Talk about not being able to take risks a lot of times. Governments are in that situation, and AI is a perfect example. Industry can embrace that and run with it and play with it and see what’s out there for governments. The risks are so high if they get it wrong, and if they don’t have the right security around things. There are people all over the world whose whole life is about cutting into things and seeing what they can find their way into. It is an interesting dichotomy because I can see how there’d be people in government that are ready to run and then there’s those that are like, “Hold on.”

Lorna Stark: “I’m pulling back on the reins and someone else is pedal to the metal.”

Gina Stracuzzi: The next 10 years are going to be fascinating.

Lorna Stark: I can’t wait to see, and as I said, I’ve spent my entire career working with governments and I’m really excited to see how governments harness technology, the technology we know about today, and then the technology that comes tomorrow. Ten years from now, we don’t even know what that will be. We have to use our imaginations to dream those things up. But really it is integral having a secure environment to be able to use that technology in the best way possible, and not have any more depletion of the trust. Public’s trust in government is going to be really critical. I think you were getting to this too, governments are really risk averse, which is maybe another reason why women selling in government, when government’s being risk averse themselves, maybe that is a good match.

Gina Stracuzzi: They can be more appreciative, I guess, of it, and more patient because of it. Well, Lorna Stark, it has been our pleasure having you on the show and given us a lot to think about. We like to leave our listeners with one thought, one action idea that people can put into place today in their careers or in their companies to get them started on a better foot. What would you like to leave us with?

Lorna Stark: I would like to go back to just the idea of relationships and making sure that you’re building new relationships, that you’re maintaining your existing relationships, and that you’re also transferring your relationships to others. It’s really important to think about that holistically from the very beginning of your career. For me, I didn’t really realize the importance of maintaining the relationships until maybe I was 5 to 10 years in. It’s especially important in government, for those who are selling in the public sector, because our clients, the people we’re selling to, they move around a lot. Within government and in New York, I’ve had this experience, people who’ve worked for the state of New York and then they work for the city of New York, or they maybe go do something at a federal agency, come back to the city or the state, or they move around within the city and the state to different agencies. Building a relationship and maintaining it can last your whole career and be instrumental throughout your whole career.

Gina Stracuzzi: You see it a lot in public sector anyway, people who jump from company to company and then one day they’re working with the state or the federal government and then next day they’re with the competitor trying to get that business. It is an interesting business for sure. Relationships are critically important. That is very good advice, Lorna. Well, thank you, Lorna, and I hope you’ll come back and visit us sometime. Thank you listeners for joining us. We’ll see you next time.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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