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EDITOR’S NOTE: We conducted this interview before the Pandemic hit, so it’s pretty impressive how good the social distancing was below. Since the show was released during the COVID-19 pandemic, we asked Amtower what his advice is for sales professionals during the pandemic. He offered the following:
- Make certain your profile is totally up-to-date and accurate. You may want to add your contact info if you want people to reach out;
- Find information worth sharing with those in your 1st network. Post these on you profile. If you go to the Home page (LinkedIn navigation bar top left) you have two options for sharing: as a post or as an article. If you are simply sharing an article, put the link to the article in the “Post” section. You can add a few lines if you want to point out key points in the article. This will be shared with your 1st degree network via their “Home” pages
- It’s a great time for account-based marketing. Reach out to those in your key accounts and personalize the message, which should encourage a response. If possible, then move the conversation to Skype or Zoom.
EPISODE 228: Godfather of Government Marketing Mark Amtower Declares Critical Must-Do’s For Maintaining an Edge When Selling and Marketing to the Federal Government During the Pandemic
MARK’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “The main thing you have is your reputation so maintain that every day. I don’t do things I can’t tell my wife and children, period. Same thing with my customers, I’m not going to say, “Sure, I can do that.” I will say, “No, let me aim you at somebody who can help you who’s much better than I am” or, “That’s just not what I do at all, let me find somebody.” I have a network of experts around me that cover literally every aspect of doing business with the government, I’m comfortable referring them. You should also build that type of network.”
Mark Amtower offers advisory services on all aspects of marketing to the Federal government and training for both companies and individuals on Social Selling via LinkedIn, Building a Subject Matter Expert (SME) Platform (company or individual), Content Marketing for GovCon and more.
He’s also the host of Amtower Off Center on the Federal News Network (WFED, 1500 AM). Listen to my show with Mark here.
Find Mark on LinkedIn here.
Fred Diamond: Mark, it’s great to have you here. I’ve worked with you over the last 20 somewhat years when I was the Marketing Director at Compaq Computers Public Sector in the mid-90s. We first met and you were very instrumental in helping us focus on that marketplace so I’m looking forward to getting some ideas from you on how the Sales Game Changers podcast [listeners] around the globe can be more successful. Why don’t you tell us a little more about your journey helping sales organizations sell more to the federal marketplace?
Mark Amtower: Fred, pleasure to be with you on your podcast. I started Amtower & Company in ’85 when I figured out that I really didn’t like working for other people – you know the feeling. I started Amtower & Company largely during the direct marketing era so I was in the 80s the king of direct marketing to the government. I actually visited federal mail rooms to see how mail was distributed, I built mailing lists for people, we had a little debase program we sold them on so we had three label formats.
About three years into that, one of my clients said, “What’s great about talking to you is you never send me a bill.” I had been talking about how they can improve their marketing simply trying to sell my list, not my advice so I started the consulting side around ’88 or so, shortly thereafter ran across you and Al Dickson and others at Apple and then Gary and you at Compaq and a bunch of folks. Mailing lists are lead generators so the better the list, the better the leads. I always prided myself on the quality of the stuff that I sold. This is a relationship-driven market and your reputation has one shot at being real good and if you screw it up, wave goodbye.
Fred Diamond: Just curiously, name some of the companies that you’ve helped. Of course, you’ve mentioned Apple and Compaq when I was there but who are some of the other companies you’ve done some work with over the years?
Mark Amtower: I did a lot of work with the B to B catalogue world in the 80s and 90s, companies like CDW, PC Mall, PC Connection, PC Mall Gov, or Connection.gov and CDWG which is a behemoth now. I’ve worked with those companies, I’ve worked with OEMs like Apple, Compaq, Dell. I was instrumental in helping Dendy Young at Falcon Microsystems spring Dell on as its first non-Apple hardware platform. Technically that’s not true because they were also selling Silicon Graphics at the time but that was a work station, not a desktop.
Fred Diamond: Mark, what do you think are the two biggest challenges that sales leaders face today in selling to this particular market?
Mark Amtower: Identifying the right places to get leads and then getting people to follow up on leads, particularly younger people. Another common issue is the seeming inability of some people to pick up the phone and make the phone call which is where the social selling comes in. Before I started my company, in graduate school I was a telemarketer and I worked for a very reputable firm, we renewed magazines for some very high end scientific American Smithsonian, a bunch of really class acts. Their reputation was important, their training was very important but it was a smile and dial operation. You get used to rejection if you do that kind of dialing, 90% of the people you’re going to talk to are going to say, “Thanks but no thanks” and click and some are less polite, but you can engage. That taught me a lot about just picking up the phone and that’s key, you’ve got to talk to people face to face, on the phone, it’s not a message chat kind of gig.
Fred Diamond: We’ve actually interviewed so many people on the Sales Game Changers podcast and we’ve talked about that. Again, I run the Institute for Excellence in Sales, people ask me, “What are the one or two most critical things you’ve learned?” and I always say that the #1 sales tool is the phone. You’ve got to pick up the phone, you’ve got to engage in conversations, you got to get through to them, it’s very hard. A lot of people think that the government is a hard marketplace to sell to. You’ve helped so many companies sell to the federal marketplace, is it a hard marketplace to sell to? Do you need to know things or what are some of your thoughts on that?
Mark Amtower: It’s not an easy market to sell to if you’re not familiar with the landscape. Market knowledge is #1. I got some grief from my most recent book, Selling to the Government, which isn’t that new right now. One of the reviews on Amazon said, “I bought this book hoping to learn, the first thing you tell me is 90% of the companies coming into the market are going to leave within a year and that’s discouraging.” No, that’s not discouraging, that’s a fact and it’s probably 95%. Why? Because they’ve listened to some quasi-educated person who said, “You’re a small business, government buys 25% from small businesses, line up, your phone will ring.”
No, it’s not that easy. You’ve got to understand nuances, you have to understand the contractual vehicles, you’ve got to understand that there’s a ton of competition in front of you, you’ve got to understand that there are intelligent, aggressive salespeople out there selling competitive products to yours. It is not an easy market to break into, it’s not an easy market to succeed in but if you get here and you get traction it is, from my perspective, the coolest game in the world because it’s the biggest market in the world.
Fred Diamond: Absolutely, it’s Fortune 1. You talked about the competition, we interviewed Gary Newgaard who runs Public Sector at PureStorage and Gary referred to selling to the federal marketplace as the NFL of sales, all the big companies are in it, it’s a competitive space, a lot of it is transparent, you know what the contract vehicles are. The customer publishes its budget, what it’s going to spend so it’s a very intense and fierce marketplace. We eluded to the fact that you’ve worked with dozens if not hundreds.
Mark Amtower: I worked with Gary.
Fred Diamond: Right, but you’ve performed dozens if not hundreds of types or marketing tactics along the way and again, you’ve helped hundreds of companies sell to this marketplace and service it. What are you teaching them today? What is your main focus today?
Mark Amtower: The main focus today is – again, go back to the book – one of the major things that you have to do outside of understanding the landscape, understanding the client, understanding the preferred vehicles for each client is you have to understand that you need to differentiate your company, your salespeople, your product, your service somehow to make it more interesting, to make it stand out, to make it more germane to the people that you’re trying to reach. If you don’t do this, if you’re simply selling another USB plug and store data, who cares? It’s liable to be a price point issue but if you’re made in China, that doesn’t even count because they ain’t buying.
I’m teaching people how to differentiate, how to turn their companies or portions of their companies into legitimate subject matter experts, how to use content to support that and all of this is part of what has become known as social selling – leveraging the various social platforms out there. For me, primarily LinkedIn but Facebook plays a role, Twitter plays a role, there’s probably others that I don’t know about that play roles. Snapchat, Pinterest, no, probably not.
Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about LinkedIn and selling to the federal government specifically. Mark, give us some insights, how do government customers relate to LinkedIn and how do they use it?
Mark Amtower: First, you have to understand that the feds are here. I do a census of feds every year on LinkedIn, I look them up, they’re listed just like your company so they’re agencies, companies or operating divisions for companies. There’s 2.3 million feds on LinkedIn that I can identify by agency, by operating division and obviously by job function if they list that, but every federal agency is on LinkedIn including the intelligence community. Sometimes they don’t identify their employer, but they’re there and mostly that’s the IC so if you work for HHS or a division of HHS, usually you list the agency, your job title, the whole nine yards and you give a little bit of your history. They’re using it largely the same way that most people are and that is they’re there maybe a couple of times a week, they’re using it to look for key people to vet companies during a procurement process, they may be looking for subject matter experts in particular areas.
When you’re in the government you have all these little fires starting in the background and all those fires revolve around particular skills or lack of skills so you need to bring yourself up to speed. You can Google stuff, come up with some good stuff, some questionable stuff, you can go to LinkedIn, check out the authors. Are they valid? Have they been doing this for 12 minutes or 12 years?
Fred Diamond: Government customers get approached by sales professionals all the time. Do they do the same thing that other customers do? Go to the person’s LinkedIn and see if they’re credible and see if they’re talking to the right person or should they be talking to this sales professional?
Mark Amtower: I’m fortunate, I teach the marketing class at George Washington University’s graduate school in the government contracting master’s program. Half my students are contracting officers in government so I brain pick with them on their social habits and they are vetting these people, they’re checking out their credentials. They key for salespeople is not to post your vitae. Your resume doesn’t mean anything to the buying audience, what do you do? What do you bring to the table? If you’ve been selling to a particular agency for any length of time you’re probably a subject matter expert or close to a subject matter expert on doing business with that agency. You know their preferred vehicles, you know the key players, you know the buying process, you know the buying cycles and you may even have a pretty good handle on the evolving problems. If you focus on, “I advise Department of Energy on data analytics or a particular part of data analytics”, that’s your headline, not your job title so people looking at your profile immediately know what you know, what you do and who you do it for.
Fred Diamond: The main thing you’re talking about here is your headline and your LinkedIn profile, your summary should be very focused on how you’re serving the customer versus, “I worked here, here and here” type of thing.
Mark Amtower: Right, nobody cares if you’ve broken quota 93 quarters in a row except your sales leader, your boss cares, the buyers don’t, all they know is that you’re an aggressive sales guy, take that off your profile unless you’re in a search mode.
Fred Diamond: What else should salespeople be doing? How should they be using LinkedIn to be more successful selling to the marketplace? You’ve mentioned the term subject matter expert before as well so what are some things that you would suggest that they do?
Mark Amtower: Build out that ‘that’s me’ platform for yourself. A lot of salespeople thing their subject matter expertise is selling, no, it’s the knowledge of a particular client that you bring to the table. The more you demonstrate that knowledge, the more you write and speak about that knowledge even on your profile, the more credible you become to that particular audience. That’s key.
Fred Diamond: Mark, that is such a great point. One of the key themes that keeps coming up at the Sales Game Changers podcast is because the customer has access to more information via social media and via the internet is that the more successful sales professionals now are presenting themselves with more value to the customer. How would I present that on LinkedIn? I like the way you just said that, showing that you know solutions, you know the marketplace, you know the customer’s challenges.
Mark Amtower: It doesn’t answer your question directly but the most underutilized space on LinkedIn is that huge banner behind your head in the photo. There’s that pale blue with the lines and dots and yawn, 90% of the profiles have it. I’ve helped people create word clouds around their areas of expertise, I show them where the free tools are, you go there, you size it to fit that background area, make sure your head is not covering up a keyword or phrase. You plug your company logo in there as well and when people go to your profile they immediately resonate if that’s an area that they have a problem in.
A few years ago people didn’t understand what CDM was, Continuing Diagnostics and Mitigation. If you have the issues around CDM as your background graphic, you’re identifying with their pain point and if the content of your profile backs that up and you’re working with particular agencies, DHS, any of the agencies that have a lot of data – which agency doesn’t have a lot of data, right? – we read about violation so that CDM is critical.
Fred Diamond: Mark, should salespeople Link In with government customers?
Mark Amtower: Yes, definitely but always put it in context when you reach out. Don’t send the form letter, say, “You’re with this agency, I see you deal with these issues in the cloud or these issues with big data.” Put it in context, give them a reason to actually go back and look at your profile and here’s the big thing, if your profile is not fully informational and they go back and look at it and there’s nothing there to substantiate what you just told them, you’re toast.
Fred Diamond: We have a lot of Sales Game Changers listening to the show who might be in their first or second job in sales and I get emails all the time from Sales Game Changers around the globe. What do you want to tell the young sales professionals about the government customer? It’s an interesting marketplace in that there’s rules and there’s laws, not just rules, there’s literally laws, federal acquisition regulations that the government customer knows about so you have to interface with the customer a certain way. Obviously there’s integrity, etcetera, what would be some of your advice for some of the young sales professionals to know about the government customer that they might not have learned yet?
Mark Amtower: The fact that most government employees are not there for the money, they’re there for the mission. A lot of people in the industry are the same way, there’s money to be made in any market. To understand this market you have to have a passion for it, so if you’re in your third year and you’re still thinking, “God, this is boring” find another place to sell. If you’re developing that passion, start developing your own continuing education on that. You’ve been an example of this but you probably don’t know it. Every touch you make, add value. No cheap shots, no Kumbayas, no cat videos. Those all have its place but we’re business to business and in government you don’t need that stuff, your reputation is really all you have. Lying and misleading people selling second rate products, wrong.
Reading the right stuff, you interview people on the sales process, twice a week you have these wonderful monthly learning sessions, workshops where you have this very well-known guy of the month or woman of the month come in and help people understand their particular slant on the processes. That’s the kind of thing that you need. If you think graduate school stuff, if you went to graduate school you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Fred Diamond: Mark, before we take a short break and listen to one of our sponsors, if you’re selling to a B to B and you’re selling to a marketplace like government specifically but also other B to B as well there’s a huge ecosystem of suppliers and partners, not just the customer. This is particularly big in the public sector space with contractors and systems integrators, there are certain requirements and you’re always teaming, in some cases you’re teaming with your competitor, co-opetition, if you will. How should salespeople in this marketplace and related B to B markets be using LinkedIn to position themselves in the ecosystem – not just with the customer, but in the ecosystem with partners as well?
Mark Amtower: You just said it. You’re prime on a contract, you’re sub on a contract, you’re a supplier on a contract. You have to build a network that supports that activity, you have to understand who the people are in the process, who the people are that may be migrating out of the process due to age or maybe it’s a govie who’s going back to industry. That’s a very valuable asset for you potentially but you’ve got to understand where these people are going so monitoring their migration, building that network, nurturing that network and treating it absolutely like the most important thing in your business.
Fred Diamond: Mark, what advice would you give to the young professionals who are just starting their career in federal sales?
Mark Amtower: A lot of the things that we’ve already talked about but we can look at them again, love what you do. Especially for salespeople, if you do not love what you do, you’re probably never going to be in that top tier because sooner or later it’s going to show. It’s going to show to your peers, it’s going to show to your boss, more importantly it’s going to show to your customers. Love what you do, love what you sell, believe in what you sell. If you can’t believe in what you sell, find a product or service that you can believe in.
Learn to leverage the tools at hand. In your organization there are probably key people in the market who are repositories of great information on your client, on the market in general, on selling a particular product. Suck them dry either formal or informal mentor relationship. Your knowledge of the market overall is important but the further down you get, ultimately for salespeople it matters on that sales process. Not all sales books are designed for this market so learn to pick the parts of those books or those presentations or those workshops that are most germane to what you do, the things that you can leverage and incorporate them. 35 years later I’m still learning literally every day. One of the reasons I love speaking and writing is I get feedback from people like you, Fred who said, “Yeah, but what about this?” and I’m going, “Alright, I didn’t think about that.”
Fred Diamond: 35 years ago, the phone is still the most important thing but you didn’t have LinkedIn to go to. What are some skills that they should be working on to get their careers off to a great start?
Mark Amtower: Listening, #1. You and I have talked about that several times, several of your guests have talked about that. Listening, writing, speaking, picking up the phone. Your ability to speak succinctly, clearly to get to the point quickly, I call it a word per idea ratio. If you go on and on about something you’re going to lose people. The thing that we talked about before, I don’t know if it was Paul or somebody else in one of your other interviews talked about that room where you had the confrontations. Somebody’s being the sales guy, somebody’s being the customer.
That kind of practice, get your pitch down, narrow the scope of what you’re saying to their pain points and how you can help alleviate it. Integrating social selling into the sales process is absolutely key at this point. The art of networking for newbies. Not everybody is a natural networker and we all gravitate to people that we know at those events, that’s not what a networking event is necessarily for, it’s nice to say hello to the people you know but you’re there to meet new people as well.
Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about building networks for a second or two, let’s get a little bit deeper into that. Again, you’re extremely well networked, you’ve been doing this for a long time, you know a lot of people, you’ve been in the same marketplace for a while so let’s give more specific advice on how young sales professionals should go about making their networks happen. How should they start building their networks?
Mark Amtower: There’s a number of things. Your group, for instance. If you want to, and you should be networking with your peers, networking in IES. If you’re into IT in government, AFCEA, ACT-IAC, Professional Services Council for the services side. If you’re selling military product more like NDIA. There’s a lot of associations out there, there’s a lot of those groups that are off the radar. I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak to a CE Only monthly meeting of companies that do business at Fort Meade, we know the client there but I was a little taken aback because I’m a marketing guy. Most of what I talk about marketing-wise you don’t do in the intelligence community but it was fun, so I met a lot of neat people.
Fred Diamond: Again, you’ve worked with tons of marketing organizations and I don’t want to ask you what should marketing be doing for sales, there’s other podcasts to listen to but let’s talk about it from a sales perspective. First of all, what should salespeople expect today from their marketing organization and what are some of your ideas on how they should be engaging?
Mark Amtower: We’ve talked several times here and elsewhere about the importance of marketing attending sales meetings. It’s also important for sales to attend marketing meetings. When they’re holding their annual budget thing, their plan for the year, you should probably be there and say, “These events paid off good dividends for us, these are dogs, this publication generates more.” Your feedback to the marketing people when they’re planning out their year is key so that perpetual interaction.
Fred Diamond: Mark, you’ve given us some great advice today. Again, on the Sales Game Changers podcast it’s a special episode, we’re talking to Mark Amtower, he’s known as the godfather of government marketplace, he’s helped hundreds if not thousands of companies be more successful in selling and servicing that federal marketplace, the GovCon marketplace. Mark, before I ask you for your final thought we like to ask our guests about some habits that they have that has led to their success so why don’t you tell us about one or two of your habits that has led to your continued success?
Mark Amtower: I have information feeds coming in on a daily basis on the court rulings, all aspects of the government market. I don’t read it all but I scan the headlines and just about everything and when I find something germane, I read it then I share it. I’m not only educating myself, I’m sharing that information with my network but building that network as well reaching out to people cultivating that and touching them whenever possible without being intrusive. If I see a job change on LinkedIn I’m going to say hey, but I’m going to look at their profile first and go back and see and I’ll also look at the company profile because if I know other people there, particularly if I know their boss or the senior executive at the firm I’m going to say, “Congrats on the new position, when you see so-and-so tell them Amtower says hey.”
Fred Diamond: Mark, before I get your final thought I need to ask you, you’ve worked on so many things, you’ve authored books, you’ve ran seminars, you consult, you have a radio show, you’re kind of the renaissance man as it relates to government marketing. What are you working on now? What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Mark Amtower: Getting better at being a radio host. I’m not natural here, I love it but I don’t know how it comes across on the air or in a podcast.
Fred Diamond: You’ve been doing your show for 10 years now.
Mark Amtower: 14.
Fred Diamond: 14, so people are listening.
Mark Amtower: [Laughs] they’re listening. I’m still working on a couple of books, one on that subject matter expert platform and I’ll either redo Government Marketing Best Practices or do a LinkedIn for GovCon. That’s harder, though because LinkedIn continues to morph, they take stuff away, they add stuff in but the basics remain the same. I’m trying to stay as close to the cutting edge as I can on those social selling tactics to help more and more people.
Fred Diamond: Before I ask you for your final thought, I’ve got to go back to something you said before, it was just a brilliant bit of advice. One of the things that keeps coming up again on the Sales Game Changers podcast time and time again is the need for successful sales professionals to provide more value to their customer and you’re the first guy who suggested using your LinkedIn profile not to tout yourself, “I’m great, I worked in these agencies and I worked for these companies” but things that will be of value for the government customer or partners that you’re trying to communicate to to help them move their mission forward. Kudos for you, Mark, on that particular advice. Again, we talked today on the Sales Game Changers podcast with Mark Amtower, the godfather of government marketing.
Mark, give us a final thought. We have Sales Game Changers listening around the globe, why don’t you give us a final thought to inspire them today?
Mark Amtower: This market continues to morph, how the government procures, the rise of OTAs, tons of stuff so staying on top of that, keep learning, have the passion. This is important especially for new salespeople, have patience. This is a glacial market so a customer may tell you that they’re extremely interested in what you sell. If they don’t have the funding for it at that moment, we may be talking 18 months before they call and say, “Hey, can I have it?” by then you may be on version 2 or 3 anyways so patience is a key factor.
The main thing you have in this market is your reputation so maintain that at the front of your mind every day. When you wake up in the morning can you look in the mirror and say you like you? At the end of the day, same thing. I don’t do things I can’t tell my wife and children, period. Same thing with my customers, I’m not going to say, “Sure, I can do that.” I will say, “No, let me aim you at somebody who can help you who’s much better than I am” or, “That’s just not what I do at all, let me find somebody.” I have a network of experts around me that cover literally every aspect of doing business with the government, I’m comfortable referring them.
Fred Diamond: Mark, before we wrap up here, you’ve been in this marketplace for 35 somewhat years like you mentioned, you must have had some great mentors along the way. Why don’t you mention one or two of them and how they impacted your career before we wrap up?
Mark Amtower: Lynn Bateman, #1, going back to the 70s, 80s and 90s Lynn was the mentor, the teacher of all things FAR, DEFAR so all the procurement regs, Lynn taught everybody but she taught me to trust my instincts when it came to writing and speaking. She basically took the cuffs off and said, “Have at ’em but never lie.” Tom Hewitt, founder of Federal Sources now part of the GovWin package. Tom Hewitt is what I had before LinkedIn occurred, Tom knew everybody and everybody knew Tom. If you didn’t know who Tom Hewitt was in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s, you weren’t really a significant player in the market. Dendy Young, Falcon Microsystems, GTSI, still a very good friend taught by example and he taught me listening. When you’re talking to Dendy Young, he is 100% focused on you and what you’re saying and he’s processing as you talk, and oddly enough for me, Izzy Feldman. Izzy helped me start my business back in ’85 because he didn’t want me working for him anymore.
Fred Diamond: Izzy Feldman, may he rest in peace. There are four great people there, so thank you so much.
Transcribed by Mariana Badillo
Produced by Rosario Suarez