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EPISODE 146: Iron Mountain Sales Chief Michael Lewis Shares How a Major Failure Early in His Career Led to His Sales Leadership Success
MICHAEL’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Focus on the customer, understand their challenges first and second, try new things. What got you here today to be successful won’t get you where you’re trying to go. The customer landscape, the competition is changing so invariably you have to change and adapt and try new things to be successful in the future.”
Michael Lewis is the General Manager for Iron Mountain’s Public Sector Business.
Prior to Iron Mountain, he held sales leadership positions at IBM, Siemens and General Electric.
Find Mike on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us a little more about you that we need to know?
Michael Lewis: Thanks, Fred. Good to be here and appreciate you coming by today. I grew up outside of Philadelphia and went away to college at the University of Massachusetts to play Division 1 lacrosse. I started my career out of the Philadelphia area calling on legal accounts in downtown Philadelphia, and I’ve been very fortunate to move around the country over my sales career to get exposed to various companies and various areas of the IT overall curriculum. Through those experiences, I’ve been exposed to incredible sales leaders throughout the way, incredible training and I feel extremely fortunate to have that opportunity.
I have two sons, my first son was born in California and my second son was born in Texas so they’ve got a feel for various areas of the United States. Right around 2001, I got a call from the president to say, “I’d like you to come to Washington DC and take on a federal organization.” At that point in time, it was post 2001 where working in Silicon Valley was extremely exciting and I was a little bit hesitant at that point to take that leap and come into federal, but it turned out to be one of the best things in my professional career to come to Washington DC and to serve the US federal government. On a personal note, I love reading non-fiction, I love podcasts, I just started listening to your podcast which I’m finding very interesting and I also am a fanatic about golf when I have the time on the weekends as a way to de-stress. That’s a little bit about myself.
Fred Diamond: We did a special episode with Christine Barger, she’s the VP of Federal over at Microsoft. She was a Division 1 lacrosse player at University of Maryland and they won the Women’s Championship in 1992 or ’93 I believe. We did a special episode with her talking about the things that you would see on the lacrosse field and how that related to eventually becoming a top sales leader, so it’s great to have another Division 1 lacrosse player on the podcast. Just curiously, when you came here in 2001, was it before 9-11 or did you come right after 9-11?
Michael Lewis: I came right after 9-11, so right around 2001 – 2002 where the country was pulling together, department of homeland security was merging and got stood up. It was an exciting time and a scary time.
Fred Diamond: Tell us what you sell today and tell us what excites you about that.
Michael Lewis: Iron Mountain, we help federal agencies both civilian and DOD agencies with their information and management of their physical and their digital assets. We have core competencies across compliance storage, digital transformation as well as compliant destruction. These decisions typically fall within the CIO’s office and CTO’s office, often times it’s something that’s not on top of mind until there is an issue so they’re faced with challenges with compliance, governance and protecting their assets.
What excites me about it is while it may not on first appearance be very exciting or sexy, if you will, once we have the opportunity to meet with the government client and understand their current state, invariably we find a value proposition that’s extremely compelling to them. We absolutely find opportunities to reduce their operating expenses or help them with their compliance challenges and information governance. That’s what really excites me. Each opportunity, whether we’re calling on a civilian agency or a DOD component, invariably we find opportunities to help them solve some of their biggest challenges.
Fred Diamond: Tell us again some of the services that Iron Mountain offers.
Michael Lewis: Again, it’s compliance storage. If an agency is currently storing physical or digital assets on premise, we provide an outsourcing capability, many times they’re in a fixed fee situation, we’re able to shift it over to a consumption based model much like cloud services are today just on the physical side. We bring it off site in a compliant facility when and if the government needs to review that document, we provide delivery for that document. We also can provide digital transformation in the even that they want a digital copy of it immediately or they want to capture some of the meta data that’s associated with the image.
Fred Diamond: Tell us how you first got into sales as a career.
Michael Lewis: I entered into the sales profession, I guess it was sophomore or junior year of college, I started doing a research project on various careers. Oddly enough, the first career I was going to pursue was to be a pharmacist and I quickly learned that was not for me, I needed to be outside active and engaged in various opportunities. Once I did the research in terms of what it takes to be a good salesperson, what are the characteristics, I found that it was a good match for my personality and it turned out to be fortuitous in a lot of ways.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about your first sales job. Who was it with again?
Michael Lewis: My first job out of college was with a company by the name of Dictaphone which I’m probably dating myself, in the sense that we called on legal and healthcare providers providing automated recording of devices and then transcribing those so that they could have a record of it. We were offering an alternative to long hand or short hand writing at the time.
Fred Diamond: What were some of the key lessons you learned from that job that have stuck with you till today?
Michael Lewis: There were tons of lessons. The first one I would say is treat everybody with respect, whether you’re talking to the gatekeeper or you’re talking to the office manager, or as you interface with various support resources within the company. Ultimately, it’s about relationships that allow people to open up and to establish a level of trust and by treating people with respect I’ve always found 95% of the time people reciprocated and they opened up, and they were able to tell you about some of their challenges or some of their problems
I’d say that’s the first one, the second one would be to prepare before you make a sales call. Take the time as opposed to coming in thinking you’re trying to sell something, prepare to understand what’s on the other side, what’s happening within your client’s environment, what are the challenges they’re faced with and ultimately that leads to a much more productive, invaluable sales or information exchange. Many times that’s how sales starts out, it’s an exchange of information that ultimately leads to a solution. Those would be the two things early in my career that I learned, I would say a third one would be perseverance because in the early days there was a lot of business development or cold calling prospecting was done, that’s changed in today’s world because information is so readily available to us. At the same time, it’s the question of at bats and being targeted in who you’re calling on and perfecting your opening in terms of trying to secure an initial conversation with a prospect or customer.
Fred Diamond: Michael, we have a lot of people listening to the Sales Game Changers podcast around the globe, a lot of them are earlier in their career. You mentioned preparation, that comes up not infrequently. Give us an insight, give us something that you do to prepare, that you would recommend they do to ensure that when they get in front of the customer they are as prepared as they need to be.
Michael Lewis: Things that we try to do and instill here at Iron Mountain Government Solutions is we try to instill, first of all, look at the macro issues that the agency or the government is faced with, whether it’s presidential mandates, challenges, budget constraints, etcetera. Start macro and then build down to the agency’s mission to understand what are they in business to do, what is that agency’s purpose and mission. Once you’ve established what that mission is, you can then take a look inside of the agency’s strategic plan, and the strategic plans are all online open public domain.
You will find all kinds of opportunities of the challenges that the agency is faced with and then bring it down to your individual prospect. If you are calling on an executive level person, they have a certain set of challenges that they’re faced with as opposed if you’re calling to an operator who is responsible for operating and maintaining the records management program. I would customize the approach depending on who you’re calling on in order to connect with that individual on their level and what’s most important to them. Historically or from a reaction perspective, I find initially people may go in wanting to tell people about their service and what those benefits are. Invariably, if you’re not connecting you’re not moving the opportunity forward so it’s a question of I would say flipping it around to their perspective as opposed to your perspective on what you have in your portfolio of offering products or services.
Fred Diamond: That makes so much sense especially today where the customer has access to information about your products and services, they don’t need you to tell them that, they need you to help them solve their mission. I liked the way you talked about understanding the customer’s mission. In a lot of cases you’re right, it is published out there for you. Tell us a little more about you, what are you an expert in? Tell us more about your specific area of brilliance.
Michael Lewis: Brilliance is a pretty stout word, I would not characterize these as brilliant areas. I would say there are two things, one is experience. Over the 25 years that I’ve been in the information technology solution selling, I’ve developed an archive of experience that I can draw on from a situational perspective and I would say that’s one value add that I can bring to situations. I’ve seen situations along the way or have reasonable experiences that we can apply in today’s challenges, so I’m able to offer something, a different perspective to maybe change the perspective and help us move an opportunity forward. That was the one area, the second would be in account planning or opportunity development and strategy.
Through the years of formal training and informal experiences at the companies that I’ve worked at, we’ve gone through multiple sales methodology training, solution selling, R3, power based selling, challenger training and so on and so forth. In each of those experiences, you can take something that works for you and apply it to today’s environment and today’s challenges. I would say I’m able to take a look at an opportunity objectively and add some perspectives that helps connect better with the customer, increase our probability of win, differentiate us vis a vis the competition.
Fred Diamond: We’re talking today on the Sales Game Changers podcast with Michael Lewis, general manager of Iron Mountain’s public sector business. Michael, you’ve worked for some great companies, blue chip companies: IBM, Siemens, General Electric. I’m sure along the way there’s been some mentors who have impacted your career, why don’t you tell us about one or two who have impacted your career along the way?
Michael Lewis: There have been several mentors and that’s something that I’m really fortunate to have is that I’ve worked with various leaders with different styles, different approaches. Two people come to mind, the first would be George Nolan who ultimately was my district manager. Ultimately he got promoted to be the CEO of Siemens USA. I’ll never forget I was an individual contributor, new business sales rep working out of the Philadelphia office. We had an RFP due on a Friday, it was due at 9:30am and I misread the due date. I had worked all night, I had a team of people putting the final touches on the RFP, I really felt good about it, I arrived at the client’s site at 12:30pm and I thought it was a 3:30 due date, ultimately it was due at 9:30.
I had to own it, come back to the office, face the disappointment, if you will and George basically accepted that. He allowed me to fail, he allowed me to learn from my mistake and then through that experience, George and I developed a really strong relationship, he promoted me a couple times in my sales career to larger, more diverse responsibilities. To this day, I maintain a friendship with him albeit infrequent, but it was his mentorship that taught me some of the things that I try to instill in my leadership today.
Fred Diamond: I’ve got a quick question about that example that you just said there. Again, the proposal was due to the customer at…?
Michael Lewis: It was due at 9:30
Fred Diamond: …and you got there at 12:30…
Michael Lewis: Thinking that it was due at 3:30.
Fred Diamond: You had no chance, so basically the customer said, “Sorry, you’re late, too bad.”
Michael Lewis: That’s exactly right, they would not accept it.
Fred Diamond: What did you do? I know you went back to George and you owned it, but how did you respond to that?
Michael Lewis: I took it back to the office and I owned up to it, I spoke to all the people who supported us through the RFP response process and apologized to those people. Then I learned from it and moved forward, so I didn’t dwell on it, it was a learning opportunity and you move forward, things happen. That was a situation that I’ll never forget. George continues, when I see him, to remind me of that in a comical way so that’s one of the reasons I never forget it.
Fred Diamond: You mentioned there was a second mentor.
Michael Lewis: My second mentor was when I came to Washington DC, a guy by the name of Jim Cantwell. He subsequently passed away and Jim was a federal IT expert, he actually worked for Northern Telecom, a lot of people knew Jim within the industry and he taught me federal. It was overwhelming at first, the acronyms, the buying process was very different than I was used to selling to enterprise Fortune 1000 and Jim took the time to help me understand the perspective of the customer. That really helped me flip from being so excited about all the benefits of our products and services to really thinking about the customer, their perspective and trying to meet their needs. I am eternally indebted to him for helping me understand because that, I thought, was one of the key changes in my personal approach and my approach with leadership today, is to flip it around to the customer’s perspective because ultimately that’s who we’re trying to serve.
Fred Diamond: That’s a great point, for the Sales Game Changers listening around the globe. When you serve a vertical marketplace like federal there’s rules, there’s laws literally on how you need to sell and how the customer can buy and how you need to interact with the customer. You mentioned acronyms, there’s like the federal acquisition regulations so you need to understand that and there are certain ways that the customer buys and it’s the same case in a lot of the verticals, so truly understanding it. Just curiously, you moved into federal in 2001, how long did it take you before you really became conversant in the marketplace?
Michael Lewis: I recall in the early sale exchanges that we had along with Jim, I would write down the acronyms, look them up at night and then try to put it in perspective. I would say it took about 9 months before I really felt conversant and I attended various industries’ association meetings to learn from that, I read a number of books, periodicals and quickly got up to speed. While initially it’s somewhat daunting to move from a commercial career into a federal career, it’s something that you can learn. Ultimately I find that 80% of selling is the same whether you’re selling to a commercial customer or a government customer, a public sector customer. As you pointed out, the rules are different, that 20% is significantly different, you do need to know what are the rules that you’re playing by, how does the customer evaluate, etcetera in order to be effective and successful with this customer.
Fred Diamond: Michael, what are the two biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
Michael Lewis: In the case of records management, it is something that’s not on the forefront of every CIO or CTO’s mind until there is a crisis or until something gets out of control and they have to react to either increased security, compliance or privacy issues that they come across. The challenge is getting mind share, once we are able to share use cases of other successful deployments implementations with the executive, all of a sudden they are much more interested in the things that we’re doing to help other agencies.
That’s a challenge that we have, the second is again changing the perspective from a company perspective to the customer perspective. We try to reinforce that as we prepare for sales calls, as we put our account plans together. That is somewhat of a challenge because human instinct is to be very excited about what you have to offer, perhaps even make a proposal prior to really understanding the customer’s environment or providing a price prematurely in the sales process where you haven’t really understood what problems you’re trying to solve, whether it’s quantitatively or qualitatively.
Fred Diamond: Michael, again you’ve worked for IBM, Siemens, general electric, now you’re running Iron Mountain’s public sector business. Take us back to the #1 specific sale success or win from your career that you’re most proud of.
Michael Lewis: I’m going to name a recent one because this had a lot of lessons and a lot of takeaways from the opportunity. We recently won a 5 year blanket purchase agreement with a large federal civilian agency that is somewhat decentralized in nature. This sales process started by a pilot where our senior business development executive met with, I would call them, mid-level managers within a small component. They were faced with a problem of increased budget, lack of control, poor service levels. What our salesperson was able to do is understand the current environment and he developed a relationship with multiple stake holders across the small component. He also put together a compelling business case that showed a return on investment, a reduction in the agency’s current operating expenses.
This small pilot, this proof of concept ultimately grew into an eventual single award 5 year BPA. There are just so many positives to take away from it, ultimately there were two protests. I think the time period, the ultimate sales process was probably 24 to 32 months – I don’t want to discourage people who are contemplating a sales career in federal, but there are things that are within your control, and others that are outside of your control. There was perseverance, there was a teamwork amongst all of the functional groups within Iron Mountain that came together and worked on solutioning the opportunity, putting together discriminators and it’s something that I’m really proud of in that the team worked together.
As I said, we learned lessons along the way and we also took away several benefits. At the end of the day, we are able to help this agency meet their mission challenges so that feels good, we have a sense of purpose in the sense that we’re protecting people’s individual information. We’re helping this agency with privacy, we’re helping them reduce cost and that’s what we take away from that opportunity.
Fred Diamond: Before we take a short break and listen to one of our sponsors, again you pretty much went into sales right after college. You were a lacrosse player, I don’t know how many people really know lacrosse intimately out there in the world but it’s a war, you’re banging the bat at the other players, if you will. My son played hockey, he also played lacrosse a couple years in high school so I know what it’s like out there on the field. I think lacrosse players and hockey players are pretty much the right mindset to move into sales. Did you feel that, just curiously?
Michael Lewis: I did. I guess some of the parallels between approaching a sport and sales is in sales and in sports you have to try new things, you have to get out of your comfort zone. In lacrosse if you learn how to shoot with your right hand and shoot with your left hand, it’s the same in sales. You may try something that’s way outside of your comfort zone ultimately by practice, repetition that we had to do on the athletic field, you can apply those same principals in a professional career in sales. Whether it’s sales qualification, presentation, developing value propositions, helping a customer with a business case, while that may not be your initial comfort level, it is something that you can try and then perfect that area to ultimately improve your overall sales effectiveness.
Fred Diamond: Did you ever question going into sales?
Michael Lewis: I never did because actually early in my career I recall I think my first year I made $17 or $18 thousand, the second year I doubled it to 36 and so there was financial reward. I also found that what I put in I was able to get out of it and what it also fulfilled for me was I have an internal curiosity about how different businesses are run. In sales, I was able to get inside of different companies, learn about their businesses, their industries, their challenges and that to me was extremely motivating. Regardless of what the product or service was, it was an opportunity to be outside, interact with people and help them solve problems and that to me is extremely motivating.
Fred Diamond: Michael, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the selling professionals listening around the globe today?
Michael Lewis: Again, back to the perspective of the customer. Putting yourself in the shoes of the customer so that you can meet their challenges and their needs. That involves everything from understanding their role, how they’re measured, what their challenges are, how they stand from a political perspective to know what other stake holders would be involved in the evaluation, the requirements development or receiving some of the benefits and as you break it down, take the time to prepare and meet the customer’s needs. I think you stand a very good chance at being successful and effective in the sales profession.
Fred Diamond: What are some things you to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Michael Lewis: I’m constantly reading, listening to podcasts, I have a propensity to read non-fiction and ultimately I mix it up with both sales training books as well as articles that I come across with Harvard Business Review. I try to read three or four papers a day to apply current news and events and challenges to my sales interactions on the executive calls that I make, and that’s the way I keep the saw sharp along the way. Here at Iron Mountain Government Solutions we try to have periodic training sessions to help with that whether it’s a sale skill, whether it’s a technical skill, we bring in industry experts to assist them with broadening their perspective so that when they’re in front of the client they can add value to that customer environment.
Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Michael Lewis: Right now we’re building out a channel strategy. Historically, Iron Mountain has been a direct organization and as everybody knows in the federal space, there are both large integrators, small businesses, etcetera who own and have responsibility for certain contract vehicles so we’re building out our channel strategy where we’ll get used to selling in an indirect model. We’re looking for channel partners that complement Iron Mountain’s portfolio of offering so that it’s a mutual benefit for the channel partner and for Iron Mountain.
Fred Diamond: Sales is hard, people don’t always return your phone calls or your emails. We’re recording this podcast in late January in 2019 and the government is in amidst of a partial shutdown, of course you serve the federal marketplace. There’s been things along the way, sequestration and continuing resolutions and in every industry there’s challenges that happen at macro and micro level, if you will. Why have you continued? What is it about sales as a career that’s kept you going?
Michael Lewis: Again, I think it’s the curiosity to understand how in this case, various government agencies operate, what their challenges are, how they’re serving the public or protecting national assets. To me, it’s a greater sense of purpose that we’re able to fulfill and that’s what keeps me going.
The second thing that keeps me going is by seeing new people coming into our organization or younger people who are early in their career and helping them learn new techniques in solution based selling, and see them successful. Yes, perhaps sometimes people have setbacks, that’s okay but moving forward, learning from it and again, pushing the envelope and trying new things.
Fred Diamond: I’m just curious as you’re talking about that, the story that you gave us about showing up late when the proposal was due, how did you feel as you were driving from the government location back to the office? Again, you talked about how you owned up to it, you took care of it and you talked to your boss and everything got straightened out eventually, but what was going through your mind as you were driving back to the office?
Michael Lewis: I felt like I let a lot of people down, so I was embarrassed by it. There was a simple oversight and frankly, I thought that was going to be my last day working for the company. Ultimately that turned out to be a lesson that I took forward with me in all the career moves that I made along the way. That’s part of sales, facing adversity, overcoming challenges that are both within your control and outside of your control. That was within my control but I didn’t dwell on it and I moved forward and persevered.
Fred Diamond: It’s never happened again, right?
Michael Lewis: It has not happened again.
Fred Diamond: I want to thank Michael Lewis, general manager of Iron Mountain’s public sector business, for the great insights today and the great content. Michael, before we wrap up here, why don’t you give us one final thought to inspire the Sales Game Changers listening around the globe to this podcast?
Michael Lewis: I’m going to maintain the theme that I’ve spoken about today and that is focus on the customer, understand their challenges #1, and #2 try new things. What got you here today to be successful won’t get you where you’re trying to go. The customer landscape, the competition is changing so invariably you have to change and adapt and try new things to be successful in the future.