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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Sales Game Changers virtual learning session sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on January 5, 2022. It featured an interview with Red Hat’s Vice President, US Channel Sales Mike Byrd.]
Mike is an IES Premier Sales Leaders. Learn more here.
Find Mike on LinkedIn.
MIKE’S’ TIP: “Figure out what your goals are. The goals aren’t just, “Make my number.” Sometimes the goal is, “I need to be strategically relevant to XYZ customer,” “I need to find my own sales process, build my own sales engine.” Figure out what your top 2-3 goals are and no more than that. Then work backwards from there. Think, how long is it going to take me and what do I need to do to slowly build up to accomplishing what these goals might be? The buildup needs to be set with marker flags. Marker flags are leading indicators of success.”
THE PODCAST BEGINS HERE
Fred Diamond: Mike Byrd, first of all, congratulations. You are one of the inaugural IES Premier Sales Leaders. We announced that designation in November of 2021 and we’re featuring all of the Premier Sales Leaders on the Sales Game Changers podcast. Congratulations on all your success. We’re excited to talk to you, we’ve had some great people from Red Hat on the podcast before. Paul Smith, Lynne Chamberlain, Nathan Jones. Of course, they’ve all moved onto other great opportunities, but I’m excited to hear from you and I’m excited to hear what’s going on. First of all, great to see you. Let’s get right to it. How are things going in your sales organization right now?
Mike Byrd: Fred, thanks a lot for having me on. Thanks for the recognition, I love what the Institute does. It’s been great for me and for my team so really, just a big thank you for having me on as a guest. Things are going well. We just finished up FY21 and we’re moving into calendar ’22 and it’s a lot of moving parts and it’s a lot of fun – it wouldn’t be fun if there weren’t a lot of moving parts, but I’m having a good time. Thanks a lot for having me.
Fred Diamond: You’re welcome. I also want to mention that the new public sector lead for Red Hat, Clara Conti, was also a guest on the show a couple of years ago, and she’s also on our Women in Sales advisory board, as is Nancy Bohannan, by the way. Priorities. We’re doing today’s interview in the first week in January, people are back and of course, the pandemic continues to flare. People don’t expect it like this at this point, but it is. So, tell us what your priority is right now. It’s the beginning of the year, you just mentioned you just closed the year. As a sales leader, Mike, tell us what you’re focusing on right now, this week.
Mike Byrd: This week, it’s an interesting time at Red Hat as well. We’re reshuffling some of our go to market plans. That’s a bit more of a reshuffle than normal, so that’s been occupying a lot of my time. At the same time, those sorts of things always happen. As a sales leader, it’s important to keep your team focused on pipeline, especially when you’re selling to the public sector because so much of our business, what you book today really got its start a year ago. If you allow distractions to prevent you from building pipeline, you’re in a lot of trouble.
To me, it’s always focusing on pipeline. We measure our weekly contributions to pipeline and we also look at the overall shape, the long-term full running per quarter shape of our pipeline. Make sure that we have a lot of prospects in the funnel, so to speak, and slowly whittle it down. I’d like to say that’s my focus when I’m talking to my team, but the truth of the matter is since we’re getting out of the blocks and the new year, I’ve had to move a lot of people to different territories. I’m doing simple things like putting the comp plan together and defining the territory for them, and putting the finishing touches on them. It’s just basically defining them so I’m launching that now.
The truth is I’m working on these very boring mundane tactical details. But when I’m talking to the sales team, it’s really about pipeline.
Fred Diamond: You run channels for Red Hat right now. Tell us a little bit about what that means as compared to being someone who does direct sales. What are some of the things that you think about? Especially as we’re going into the new year.
Mike Byrd: It’s not terribly different when you’re a traditional salesperson selling to an end customer. You’re really solving problems for them, you’re selling them on the division of Red Hat and then our technology in a way that solves problems. When you’re selling some partners and through partners to our end customers, you’re really doing the same thing. It’s just a little bit more complex because you’re trying to create customer problem-solving motions with partners and help the partner actually solve the customer problem. Deliver some sort of end solution to the customer, all the while bringing Red Hat technology along for the ride with them to help solve that problem.
You’ve got two sales you got to go through. One is with a partner to get them to buy into our vision. Once that’s complete, then we’re really helping the partner to sell their vision which includes Red Hat.
Fred Diamond: We have a question here that comes in from Robert, “Does Mike focus on a particular marketplace for Red Hat?” We were talking before the show, you started your career selling to the navy with Sun and then you moved in, so you spent pretty much most of your career if not all your career in the public sector market. I ask this question to all the people who we’ve had on the Sales Game Changers podcast who focus on public sector. Why public sector as a sales career? What is your answer to that? I know you’ve recently had some reorg shifts away from 100% public sector, but up until recently, pretty much that’s been the main focus of your career. Why public sector markets?
Mike Byrd: It’s really dumb luck in my case. I was working as a software developer in Texas, you and I were talking about that before. Bumping into Sun salespeople who were selling to my company at the time. I was a user of Sun technology and thought to myself, “I would like to work where you are.” So I asked them to help me get a job at Sun, and fortunately, they did. In my first accounts I kind of started in the navy, but in truth I was calling on Bell Helicopter and Raytheon down there in Dallas. They very quickly moved me onto the government team which wasn’t much of a choice on my part. They moved me there and I started doing navy sales and took it from there. I just looked into it, dumb luck.
For me, using hindsight, I’m a big fan of selling to the government because generally, they pay their bills which is really nice, and you don’t have to spend a lot of energy on the whole qualification stage of selling to them because, again, they pay their bills. You have to qualify whether or not the program or record is legitimate and funded and all that kind of stuff, but it’s a heck of a lot easier. Because I’ve spent some time selling to commercial customers, and now at my new role at Red Hat I do own public sector partner sales but I also have some commercial and Canadian partners as well. I’ve expanded my scope, but public sector is still a third of my business.
Fred Diamond: I worked for Apple Computer in the beginning of my career and Apple’s public sector division. One of our sales leaders took me on a trip into DC and he pulled over the car by the side of the road right in front of the Department of State and he said, “Take a look at all these buildings. They’re not going to tear them down. This customer will always be here.” There are so many people who’ve had such a tremendous career servicing people who are trying to help our lives improve and take care, especially right now.
Mike Byrd, we recognized you as a Premier Sales Leader recently. It’s the first time we announced the designation. What do you think the best sales professionals are doing right now? We use the word ‘elite’ a lot, Mike. What are the elite sales professionals doing right now to be successful?
Mike Byrd: To me, I touched on earlier, everyone that works in my organization knows I really harp on pipeline. It always comes back to that, but when you really slice into generating pipeline, it’s what kind of problems can I solve for my customers? What kind of problems are they trying to solve for themselves? My very best salespeople right now are becoming experts in the challenges facing our customers. Once they understand what that problem is they’re trying to solve, then they take the approach of, “How can Red Hat help? What is Red Hat’s angle in solving this particular problem?”
Of course, on the partner side, what can Red Hat do to help the vast ecosystem of public sector partners, or even commercial partners, solve the broad set of customer issues out there? I think that they’re really becoming experts in their customer problems and customer challenges. After that, they’re matching those up with capabilities and then matching that up with ultimately opportunity within the customer. All of that to me is a part of the pipeline process.
Fred Diamond: Mike, we have a question here that comes in from Dina, “Can Mike explain how they come up with those solutions in more detail?” Can you give us a little bit of an insight? Again, you said you try to find solutions for the government. What do you do? Do you have an hour set aside every week? Do you bring people in? It’s tough to bring people together right now, and you manage a team of people that are spread out even before the pandemic. As the leader, just give us some insights into how you physically go from, “We need to think about what solutions can we bring out customers,” to how you come up with some of those solutions.
Mike Byrd: It’s a really good question because there’s not one way to answer that. There are lots of different things, but the best way that I’ve found for us to answer those sorts of challenges are we got to find partners that are already solving problems. If you look at the very large integrator community that’s around the DC Metro area – of course, they’re scattered throughout the country as well, as governments everywhere. Those folks are building specific practices for solving specific problems. One of our partners built a really cool COVID vaccination tracking application for a state and local customer of ours. That was an example of our sales team having high level strategic conversations with the end customer, a specific state I won’t mention now, I think we’ll have some cool info on our website bragging about the win in a few weeks, maybe a month. It really came from the customer and then our sales team at the customer level then came to our partner team and asked, “Who do we have that has these kinds of capabilities?”
Because if you think about it, tracking vaccinations delivered versus vaccination inventory coming in, that has a lot of applications. That’s a retail effort in essence, so we mapped that challenge to partners that had some capability, also some government capability because you need to understand government contracting, regulations around personally identifiable information, all that kind of stuff. We mapped those capabilities across several different partners that we thought were good, strong candidates and then together with the customer, settled in on a few. Ultimately, the customer chose the final partner but we were working with several on that particular solution.
That’s to me the ideal way. Start with the customer problem, then survey your existing landscape of partners and their capabilities and then pursue building those solutions with those partners. Take them over to the opportunity and that’s exactly what it was. We’ve got this state and local customer that has this problem, can you help us solve it? Of course, they get excited because there’s money there. I can solve this problem by building this broader application that involves more than just technology. Red Hat, we’ve got RHEL, OpenShift, Ansible, our three major platforms that we used to solve that problem but they’re just screws or bolts in the overall solution. Whereas the partner has to do all the change and the cultural elements and other systems outside of what we have at Red Hat. They have to integrate into existing systems that the state and local customer had.
It’s probably a long answer to that question, but really, that’s the best way. If you try and start with a partner and say, “There’s a problem we see out there generally, let’s build a solution and then go chase down problems that it solves,” that’s the reverse model. You can have some success with that and I’ve seen some companies do that brilliantly but I think that the hit rate on that is a lot lower. The most positive example of starting with looking out at the industry, seeing a broad problem and then building a solution for it that was successful, Red Hat participated in this but it was really NetApp and Cisco that built the whole FlexPod. There were many different FlexPod reference architectures, Red Hat was a big part of it, there are lots of other folks within industry that were part of that FlexPod reference architecture. That was a great industry example of people coming up with the solutions first and then seeking problems afterwards. It can be done, I just think it’s a lot harder.
Fred Diamond: We’ve got a question from Joseph, “How has Mike built trust with his customers to be able to provide those solutions?” Red Hat’s been around for a while, you guys are part of IBM, you’ve had a 30-year career with companies like Sun and now Red Hat. You’ve had that history and your company’s big and you’ve provided great solutions, but trust comes up a lot in the sales conversations that we have. What would be some of your advice along the way on how you’ve built trust? Let’s focus on the end customer as compared to partnership right here. What’s some advice you would give for people who are maybe 4, 5, 7 years into their career who haven’t had that longevity yet and aren’t necessarily working for such a big brand name like Sun, Red Hat or IBM?
Mike Byrd: I’ve touched on it a little bit today. In truth, to me sales is just a few simple things. One of the most important elements is becoming a problem solver. If the customer views you walking in the door, because every customer could have an unlimited supply of salespeople walking through the door if they wanted it, how you set yourself apart from all the other salespeople walking in the door and generate that kind of trust. I think you need to enter the room coming from a genuine place of wanting to solve problems for the customer. That means solving the problems whether or not it’s toy our company’s or to your own personal benefit or not.
That’s a difficult balance to walk because we have an obligation to our companies to represent our company’s best interest, but our companies are also well represented if we’re being honest and genuine in our efforts to solve customer problems. Even if that takes us a bit away from the hardcore sale of what we’re trying to do. All that said, you want to work for a company you believe in because I’ve never worked for a company that I didn’t believe in. That’s one of the first criteria. If I can’t believe in what I’m selling, forget about it, I’m not even going to go there. If you believe in what you’re selling and you believe in the vision and the mission of your company, then you’re going to be in a great position to not have to really worry about, “Hey, I want to solve your problem and it may not involve me.” It probably will involve you, but sometimes not completely.
I have been in a situation where I had a widget that I could sell and there’s another widget available, and I had to say to myself and to the customer realistically, “You’ve got a heavy investment in my competitor there, that’s fine. Let’s take a different approach. We can use some elements of what I have to offer in order to solve this particular problem you’re facing. It allows you to keep your investment in what you’ve already gone down the path with.” I think that they’ll appreciate efforts like that, that willingness to solve problems in a manner that really helps them out regardless of how it impacts you at that immediate turn. Long term, they’re going to call you back and say, “I’ve got another problem I need you to help me solve.” Perhaps that next problem will be right in your wheelhouse where you can cash in on a great sales opportunity.
Fred Diamond: We have a question that comes in from the audience and this question comes in from Jim. Jim, good to see you. Jim says, “What does Mike look for when he hires a salesperson?” Let’s talk about characteristics right now. It’s been an interesting last two years, no one thought that the pandemic was going to continue but it’s raging even more so right now with Omicron and people are still going to be working from home. There’s still a lot of uncertainty and schools are going to be closed, virtual versus live, there’s a lot of things going on right now. Talk a little bit about what you would be looking for as a sales leader in building a team. What are some things that the listener should be thinking about if they’re looking to work for a great company like a Red Hat or IBM?
Mike Byrd: Great question. To me as a sales leader, hiring is the most important job that we have. All other things really don’t matter unless you hire a good person. If you don’t hire someone who’s really going to crush it, has that ability, you’re in a lot of trouble. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter what you do, so hiring is really important. I actually tell all my leaders to be constantly interviewing candidates, constantly have a pipeline of talent. I ask about the pipeline for business but I really ask them to measure our pipeline of talent that’s coming, because I want us to be in the recruiting business and not the hiring business. So, we’re constantly out there talking to people, learning what’s out there and eventually we’re going to zero in on who we think is the best.
Then I want my managers to come back to me and say, “I have this outstanding candidate, Mike. I know you don’t have a rec, but you’ve got to find me one because this person is outstanding.” I’ll meet with them and it’s great when I can be in that situation. But then what are those characteristics? Three things, immediately. One is, can you do the job? A lot of people can put together a resume or a track record of, “Yeah, I can do the job,” but you need to make sure that you get that basic question answered. After that, I really want someone who has a great attitude, a positive attitude that thinks they can get things done when obstacles get in their way. They can either work around them or work through them.
Then, hard worker. Who’s going to work hard to build that pipeline and to constantly stay on top of it? Because sales, to me, is hard work. It’s less artwork and more science in that you just have some basic things that we need to do. There’s some skill that I want to develop in my early career folks that I expect to see developed in my later career folks. Primarily, I want to see people who are great at generating pipeline. I want to see people who are great at closing, and closing doesn’t just mean closing a deal, but building that journey for you and the customer. Then all the different steps along that journey that ultimately end in customer problems solved and a sale for Red Hat or wherever you are. Closing is many different things, it’s not just closing the deal.
Third thing I ask for is operational excellence which means understanding all the tools available to you to make sure you get your job done and using them appropriately. Not overusing them, not underusing them, to get the job done. Also, operational excellence means knowing your numbers upside-down, backwards, forwards, all directions. Having a good grasp of your pipeline, what your conversion rate is, what you need to do to hit your numbers, where you are today on your quarter, in your year and all that kind of stuff. That’s important.
The last thing I would say is sales presence. Sales presence to me is the ability to communicate your company vision, your product vision, depending on the context of your conversation but being able to have that clear communication skill in a way that your customer needs to consume it. That could be face-to-face, one-on-one type scenario. That could be a one-to-many broadcast presentation to a larger audience or round table session. That means written communication via email, talking over the phone if you’re a lead generator following up on leads that our marketing team might generate.
Different roles, certain sorts of communications and sales presence are more important than others. But overall, I want a really well-rounded visionary that can deliver that message with great sales presence. That’s communication, that’s passion and excitement. Those are the four basic skills that I either want to develop in an early career person or I want to have at a really mature highly developed level for my late career folks.
Fred Diamond: Conversely, what do you see sales reps doing wrong? You mentioned what you see some of the elite ones doing, the four elements which are brilliant. What do you see sales professionals doing wrong time and time again that you would like to coach them on to get right?
Mike Byrd: The biggest challenge I had early in my sales career and that I still see sales reps having is we want to be pleasers, we want to make our customers happy. I just said let’s solve problems, and sometimes the problems they throw out there are what I call cable chasing. They want a sales rep to solve a very tactical problem of the day and we’re like, “Yeah, sure, I’ll jump on that. You need a demo copy of my software? I’ll get you a demo copy of my software.” Or it’s, “You need a loner server? I’ll get you a loner server. It solves your problem, it makes you happy for the moment.” I call that cable chasing and I find that sales reps will do that if they’re not really strategically aware of the real problems facing the customer.
You can’t necessarily wait for your customer to come out bluntly and tell you what the problems are. They may not trust you to have that conversation with you, or they may not even be aware that you can solve those sorts of problems. You need to be aware of them, that requires a little bit of research, that means talking to other people in the account, that means talking to lots of partners, different types of companies that are in the account. You need to learn, do your research and find out what real problems are, what is the biggest challenge?
We’re lucky in the public sector world. Most of those agencies have their mission up on the website and you can see what exactly it is they’re trying to solve this year and over the next three to five years. We could do research on that, but if you don’t have that sort of information available to you, you’ve got to talk to the community, industry as well as customer folks in there to find out what real problems are there to solve. I hope that answers that question. That’s the biggest thing. Cable chasing can just be a big distraction and you’re not really driving the conversational agenda with your customer.
Fred Diamond: What are your expectations for salespeople right now? You talked a lot about coming up with understanding. One of the greatest answers you’ve given me so far, and they’ve all been tremendous, is you really need to know your customer. You need to know, and I hate to say that as a cliché, but you really got to be intimate with your customer. One of the great things about selling into public sector is there’s no shortage of information on how to find out what the mission is. You go to every website for every government agency and it’s there, so there’s no surprises.
There’s news, information and every company sells to the marketplace. I can imagine in a company like Red Hat there’s got to be at least if not dozens, hundreds of sales professionals who might have already serviced that customer and knows what they’re going for. Even though government evolves, the mission doesn’t radically change. It’s changed a little bit because of the pandemic, but for the most part, every agency has a mission. If you’re a sales professional worth your salt, you should be able to do the hard work to figure out what that is.
I’ve got a different question as I’m doing the topic here. It’s a challenging time. We’re going into the winter, the days are going to be shorter, what is your advice for junior sales professionals who might be struggling? How would you coach them? You’ve been a leader for a couple of decades, you work with some amazing people. What would be your advice to a junior sales professional 3, 5, 7 years in if they’re struggling? Again, we’re going into the winter months, days are shorter, people aren’t going back to then office, it’s going to be a little bit harder. Give us some of your advice on how they could seek some counsel.
Mike Byrd: For one thing, we just had the winter solstice, so the good news is days are getting longer now even though they are really short compared to the summer. The good news is days are starting to get longer. The structure that I talked about, those four basic things of pipeline, closing, operational excellence and sales presence, I highly believe in that structure. I also believe that structure is important to sales. When you become a salesperson, I remember when I landed as a salesperson, I was wholly unprepared. I bluffed my way into the job and I shouldn’t have gotten it, I guess.
The thing that I learned the quickest was to create as much structure and process around what I was trying to accomplish as possible. Because sales at its nature is a highly unstructured role. My inside sales organization historically has been very structured and we put out a plan for everybody to follow. Hopefully, overtime they learn that plan and make their own plans based on that kind of model. But if you’re early in your career, you don’t have the benefit of that. I think you need to begin to try and develop it into a science. How much of my day am I going to spend on these four basic functions? How much am I going to do on pipeline? And I would probably put a little bit more on pipeline because if you’re an A+ player on pipeline, you can be a C- on the other three and you can have a great career. As long as you have plenty of pipeline, if your close rate is only 2%, then just generate a ton of more pipeline in order to compensate for that.
What I’m trying to say is let’s create some structure. Sit down and start with what success looks like, work backwards. Actually, this was going to be my answer to your next step. Work backwards and figure out, who do I get to the closed deal? If the deal closes on December 31st ’22, how do I prepare my year to get to that closed point? I know it’s probably going to take my customer 60 days to go through contracting, so the technical decision, the buyer, they’ve got to figure that out prior to 60 days. I’m already in November at that point. Somewhere between November and July, we’re probably going to have a lot of technical discussions of, is my solution offer, is this interesting to this customer? Are they ready to commit to it?
Before that, in the first half of the year I need to determine, what is the problem I’m trying to solve? How am I going to build my approach to solving it? Maybe even how am I going to find out what problems are out there for me to solve? It’s all early pipeline questions. I would really try and structure things in that way. How much time does it take me to go from a closed sale to discovery of an opportunity? Map it out and give yourself that structure. Of course, you’ll build a perfect plan and nothing ever goes according to plan. You’ll have to make some adjustments along the road but as long as you have that plan and if you stick with it, you’re probably going to find success. That would be my advice. I hope that’s helpful.
Fred Diamond: It’s your bullet point number four which is about you need to be operationally excellent. One thing we’ve learned, Mike, over the last two years, and we’ve known this before this, but if you’re a sales professional, you’ve got to be a professional. You’ve got to treat it as your profession, you’ve got to do the right things, you have to do them right, you have to allow yourself to be mentored and coached. You have to know what the value is you’re bringing to your customer and you need to constantly refine those. You can’t wing it, you can’t just show up on the court, you’ve got to do all those things necessary. I love those four bullet points and we’re going to highlight them in the LinkedIn post.
Mike Byrd, we’re getting some nice comments here. Robin says thank you so much. Derek says this was great, thank you so much. Congratulations again on being a Premier Sales Leader. I look forward to speaking with Nancy in a couple of weeks. I just want to acknowledge you, you played a part in our award event every year, the Institute for Excellence in Sales does a big award event, we have our 12th one coming up in June. You participated in our 11th, you did an absolutely fantastic introductory speech to our Jay Nussbaum Rising Sales Star award winner, Veronica Poissant, so thank you for playing a role there. Thank you to all our good friends at Red Hat for your support of the Institute. Mike, as we like to do, give us one final action step. Something specific reps can do right now to take their sales career to the next level.
Mike Byrd: Thanks, Fred, I really appreciate the opportunity to be on the podcast with you today. I began to jump into it a little bit there. One thing I would do today is figure out what your goals are. The goals aren’t just, “Make my number.” Sometimes the goal is, “I need to be strategically relevant to XYZ customer,” “I need to find my own sales process, build my own sales engine.” Figure out what your goals are and really comfortably take two or three goals – no more in my mind, otherwise, you’ll just be drowned in all sorts of pursuit of those goals. Make them simple, two or three, and then work backwards from there. Think, how long is it going to take me and what do I need to do to slowly build up to accomplishing what these goals might be?
The buildup needs to be set with marker flags. Marker flags are leading indicators of success, so think to yourself, if I want to be strategically relevant to my customers, what’s an example of some evidence I have that I’m strategically relevant to my customers? One simple thing might be that they just proactively call me and ask me a question, ask me for help. Maybe another example would be that in my meetings with them they might make reference to something that we have spoken about before. Find this evidence of what you believe are leading indicators of future success, future progress towards achieving your ultimate goal. Define what those leading indicators of success are because in sales, all too often we focus on those lagging indicators of success which are bookings, sales, that’s the ultimate lagging indicator.
You don’t know that you’ve made the sale or not until you do it or don’t, and you want to be able to make an adjustment to your plan earlier in the process when something’s going wrong or there’s an opportunity that you don’t want to miss. Look for those leading indicators of future success, build those into your plan that gets you to your ultimate goal. I’m a big advocate in this kind of philosophy of objectives and key results. There’s a book, Measure what Matters, and the guy that wrote it was a board member for Google way back when they got their start. It was a really dry read but really helpful and I’ve made that a part of my personal sales process. It places a heavy emphasis on those future indicators of success to get you to your goal. That’s what I would recommend.
Fred Diamond: Mike Byrd, thank you so much. Everybody who listened to today’s Sales Game Changers podcast or watched us live, my name is Fred Diamond saying thank you very much.
Transcribed by Mariana Badillo