EPISODE 474: Elite Sales Strategies from Red Hat’s Government and Education Sales Leader Nancy Bohannan

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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 February 15, 2022. It featured an interview with Red Hat’s Vice President, State and Local and Education Nancy Bohannan. She is also a member of the IES Women in Sales Advisory Board.]

Nancy is an IES Premier Sales Leaders. Learn more here.

Find Nancy on LinkedIn.

NANCY’S TIP: “Ask for what you need. Be clear on what you need and ask. I’m a firm believer that I need to ask for what I need in all aspects of my life. We were talking about personal relationship, professional, ask for what you need.


Fred Diamond: This is going to be the last show that we’ve done where we’ve interviewed IES Premier Sales Leaders. Nancy, congratulations. You received the IES Premier Sales Leader designation in November, Mike Byrd from Red Hat as well was recognized and we did a show with him a couple weeks ago. I’m excited to hear from you, it’s been an interesting time. We’re doing today’s show in February of 2022, we were talking before the show about approaching the second year of the pandemic, everything related to that and how it’s changed so many things in the sales process and what’s going on in the industry.

Nancy, it’s great to see you. You look good, I’m excited to get deep with you and hear what’s going on, so let’s get right to it. How are things looking for your sales organization right now?

Nancy Bohannan: Before I start, Fred, thank you so much for everything IES does. It is a premier organization and is such a great resource for so many of us. I can’t thank you for everything you all do. We love the podcasts online where we can pull them down, take a walk and listen. Deeply appreciate your dedication to sales professionals and help us advance our career. Thank you, it’s just a tremendous organization.

Fred Diamond: Thank you so much, I appreciate that.

Nancy Bohannan: You said we’re going on our second year, I think we’re going on our third year, Fred [laughs]. What an interesting time. When we had started this in March of ’20, if somebody had said that I would be still sitting in my downstairs basement two years later, I would have said, “No way, I’d go crazy.” Just shows how adaptable we are. I’m super proud of the sales community on how we’ve all been able to adapt and do things we thought we never could do.

It’s been interesting with our customers. I think our customers have been pretty adaptable. I know in the state and local government market COVID’s accelerating things. When all of a sudden you can’t go in and do those catches, you need automation. When you had all this on-prem, you want to get to the cloud quicker. You have staff, a lot of people are in The Great Recession or whatever the transformation of people leaving jobs, you need managed services. I look at this period as a transformational period that actually has accelerated a lot of our customer timelines.

Fred Diamond: I neglected to mention you’re with Red Hat Software and you’re the Sales VP for State and Local, and you also cover a little bit of commercial as well. We’ve had a lot of federal sales leaders on the show over the last five years, for that matter, but specifically over the last two years. We’ve talked about how the federal has had to jump to the cloud right away, service, health, and everything related to that. Give us a little bit of insights on state and local, on how they’ve specifically had to respond differently over the last two years, and how Red Hat’s been able to help them, for that matter.

Nancy Bohannan: What’s so fascinating is that our primary customer, their primary customer is the citizen. I think it’s really interesting when you think about DMVs closing down, when you think about all the state agencies. Our citizen wants to interact with their state government the same way we interact with Amazon, we want a package to come in two days, and we get restless if it’s one day. That’s what our citizens are demanding from state governments, which is really driving a citizen-first theory. Traditionally, state governments have a lot of legacy so this really is about how you get them in the cloud and provide that citizen-first experience. I think we’ve been hit really hard with this. It’s accelerated things that our [Unintelligible 0:06:07] have wanted to do, and now the citizens are demanding it because they’re stuck in their houses.

Fred Diamond: One of the common themes that comes up a lot is it’s no longer just vendors to the customer. A lot of times we’ve been talking about how you sell, service, and become a trusted partner. Now it’s become so critical for sales professionals to understand what’s going on with their customer’s customer, and then their customer’s customer’s customer. You just hit on a great point that for the state and local that service the citizen, there’s so much more things being demanded. How has that impacted you and your salespeople? How has that concept affected the people that you lead?

Nancy Bohannan: I think we’re very focused on what our customer mission is, and we should be anyway. I cover education too, Fred, so it’s also about our educational institutions, how they service their students during this period of time. In the end, I don’t care what industry your in, your goal is to make your customer successful. If your customer defines success as great citizen support, then that’s your goal. You’ve got to embrace your customer’s goal and be focused on making them successful.

Now, with COVID, we were used to having people go into data centers and do a whole bunch of on-prem work, and now you’re not allowed to go in. That’s where things like automation, we were able to help a lot of our customers with automation. Then state agencies, let’s just pick unemployment. Can you imagine how those servers were hit in the first nine months of COVID? Making sure you had the right technology that automatically scaled and that you didn’t bring systems down, because nobody wants to not be able to get their unemployment, and health benefits. HHS, Helping Human Services and all the benefits you want. The interaction with state agencies changed drastically and having the right technology in place became critical. Having the right technology in place in a secure manner, because all of a sudden you’re going to have a lot more citizens interacting over the internet versus going into facilities.

Fred Diamond: You mentioned education, higher education specifically is such an industry that has been through so much transformation, even before COVID with a lot of the shifts, adult education and for-profit, and everything else related to that. We could talk about that for the next couple of hours, about how that industry has transformed. We have a question here that comes in from Sheryl, “Can Nancy explain what state government does and how they’re serviced?” If you could just give a brief overview, you mentioned DMV and you mentioned health. Give us a little bit of a perspective from a citizen service side. What does the state do versus local as well, for that matter?

Nancy Bohannan: You think about you as a citizen, all governments have a department of transportation that takes care of your roads, department of health and human services, even snap programs where we have benefits for folks that aren’t making enough money, where they have state benefits. State government is about providing the benefits and support infrastructure for the citizens of that state. Almost every state has a centralized IT department and a lot of times, Department of Transportation – I’m picking on Department of Transportation today – will get a lot of their IT services from centralized IT, but a lot of states have DOT get their services directly through them.

It depends what state you’re in, but think about anything you want, any support you want. I’ll pick on fishing licenses, I’ll pick on library cards, all that good stuff is what our state and local governments provide for us that IT can have be a tremendous asset and make it super easy for me to interact as a citizen and get the benefits of living in the state of Virginia.

Fred Diamond: Sheryl has a quick follow-up question. Sheryl says, “Is selling to SLED something I can make a career out of?” Obviously, you’ve reached the level of VP for some major companies but seriously, is selling to state and  local something that if you want to get into sales, that could be a nice, long, successful career for you?

Nancy Bohannan: I’m pretty passionate, yes, absolutely. I’ve sold to commercial companies, I’ve sold to state and local and I’ve also sold to federal government. In my career, I’ve done all three and all three have taught me different things. I must say, sales is sales but there are definitely tweaks. State and local government, what I like about that is the immediate return, getting to see what my state does and becoming very involved in my state knowing the governor, knowing people, knowing heads of the major departments, understanding what they’re trying to do. How many tollways can be built? Which, don’t get me started on that topic, because I can go on telling what I feel about 66 all of a sudden having tolls after 20 years of not having tolls, but I won’t go there.

What I’m trying to say, you absolutely can have a great career in SLED, and there’s something warm and fuzzy about it. I definitely enjoy the warm and fuzziness. One part of my career I sold to DOD for probably five or six years when I was at Microsoft and again, warm and fuzzy, I really felt like I never served in the Department of Defense and I felt like for the first time I was giving back and helping the DOD with their mission. That’s how I feel about SLED, I’m helping with the mission and helping our state be better organized, use their money more wisely, using technology can drive budgets down and just much more efficiency. I really enjoy state and local government, it’s definitely a passion of mine.

Fred Diamond: That’s great. When I was at Apple, I was on the state and local marketing team and California’s the fifth largest enterprise in the world. Maybe it’s changed since then but you’ve got your Texas, your New York, and there’s always politics, of course, but they are big users of technology. Especially like you just said, there’s such a demand now to serve the citizens that you have to keep moving forward and you have to be adapting and being of service.

Once again, you were recognized recently as a Premier Sales Leader, congratulations. In November, the IES recognized 13 sales leaders with our new designation. What does that mean? What are the best sales professionals doing right now for elite performance? Concurrently, elite sales leaders. What does it mean to be elite right now? There are so many challenges in the business world going on.

Nancy Bohannan: In the end, my job as a sales leader is just to support my sales teams, their #1 goal should be supporting their customers. It really starts with making sure you have a sales team that understands that the most important thing is to support their customer, understand their customer, understand their objectives. My job is to make sure my corporation supports those sales executives and gets rid of the red tape and is able to provide value. And Fred, I will say, walk away when we’re not going to provide value. For me, it’s knowing when to spend time with a customer because I can do a lot, but also knowing when to say, “This really isn’t in our will house, let’s move on.” I think that’s just as important.

I will say, I come up with an engineering degree and when I first got into sales I was like, “Oh, I’m not sure about this.” But engineering, I love to solve problems for customers. Sales is pretty sophisticated if you do it right, and I don’t think that as a sales executive or a salesperson you need to be very technical. Sometimes I think it’s good, but sometimes I think it’s bad. To me, it really is about understanding your problem, quarterbacking to the right resources and taking solutions to your customers to meet their end goals, not yours.

Fred Diamond: That’s a great point. Again, we’re called the Institute for Excellence in Sales and most of our members and sponsors are companies like yours. You’re dealing with important stuff and you’re dealing with customers who are dealing with important stuff. One thing we always like to talk about when the sales leaders are servicing either government or healthcare, education for that matter, these are really important markets with a lot of things on the line. It’s not just that the technology needs to be helping them achieve their goals, but the sales professional also needs to be aware of the criticalness of the customer.

I have a question for you. Again, you just mentioned we’re going into our third year of the pandemic and hopefully, it really is slowing down. We all hope that it is, of course, but it’s been a challenging time. I’m just curious, how are you coaching your junior and senior people? Let’s talk about the junior people first. You manage and lead a lot of people, and also senior. What do you recommend that they should be doing now? When again is your fiscal year? Tell me again when it ends.

Nancy Bohannan: We’re January-December.

Fred Diamond: Okay, so you just started the fiscal year. So, how are you coaching? What are you doing?

Nancy Bohannan: We have done a couple in-person events. We did the kick-off last week in Austin, Texas which was like, I wanted to hug everybody [laughs] there’s nothing better than seeing people, I can tell you that. There is going to be a new norm, there’s no doubt about it, and we’re all figuring it out. I think what I really tell people, “If you get frustrated, tell us and let us help.” I do know that one of my managers met with a salesperson when we really weren’t being together, but in a park at a bench. That person needed to talk through some stuff, so I think there are ways. My thing is speak up, what do you need to be successful and what help do you need?

As a junior person coming in, it is a lot tougher, in my opinion. You have to be really self-motivated. Maybe it’s because of engineering, and I was brought up in a traditional sales thing like Friday afternoon was my admin day and I blocked that time, I did all my sales force updates, I did all my compliance training. I think in this world as a junior person, the more you can give yourself some structure like blocking your calendar for lunch – I exercise 7:30 to 8:30 every day and I try not to take calls before 8:30. Every once in a while I’ll have an 8 o’clock call, that’s okay, but frankly, if I’m honest with you, I exercised 11:30 to 12:30 today because I had an 8 o’clock call. I think developing a structure that works for you gives you clarity.

If you’re a new rep and you’re given a new territory, from 10 to noon, I’m going to do cold calling – and that’s brutal, that’s super hard but we also know when we get a new territory, that’s about the only way to get it done. Then in the afternoon, I’m going to support my current customers, check out and do office hours and things like that. My biggest recommendation for a junior person is work with somebody to develop a structure, block your calendar. Give it one month, it’s absolutely not going to be right the first month. You’re going to say, “That didn’t work, I want to adjust,” or you’re going to say, “Holy cow, I wasn’t very disciplined, I continued to work through my lunches.”

I just don’t think we can afford to do that anymore, we’re all at home all the time. For me, it’s funny, I do wear an Apple watch. It tells me to stand up every hour [laughs] my husband laughs at me. I literally stand up and go like this and my husband laughs at me. I was like, “Laugh at me, I don’t care. It really feels good to move my body one minute every hour.” For junior people, I’d say work with your manager, create a structure, give the structure a month and evolve.

Fred Diamond: You mentioned you set up some of your day to talk to customers, you said office hours. How are things going with customers right now? Talk a little bit about how you’re interacting with customers right now. How is that going? What do they want from you right now? Because again, like we mentioned before, from humanistic perspectives, they’re going through same things that we are in sales but they also have to get their mission achieved. They also have to create new systems or roll out new programs, whatever it might be. How is that? Are we back to “normal” in the conversations? Where are we with your communications with customers?

Nancy Bohannan: I think they’re evolving. I would say, at the beginning COVID was really hard because it was such crisis for them, they didn’t have much time for us. I won’t name customers, but I can think some customers that are like, “Nancy, I can’t even afford to think about anything in an automation process, I am just trying to keep the lights on.” They were definitely struggling, but I think things have settled down a lot for them. Our interaction is more normal and some of them are definitely taking in-person meetings.

Here at Red Hat, we never voiced they have to do it in an in-person meeting and we do actually have a structured process that we have to say we’re going in person. But, we’re allowed to do in-person if employees – associates, we call them here at Red Hat – if associates are comfortable going and our customers want it, then we pretty much jump at that. We really do enjoy those in-person meetings. I feel like what’s happening now is that we’re still doing some virtual, but we’re getting some in-person. We’re starting to do some kick-offs and we’re really letting the associates here decide what they’re comfortable with and supporting their decisions.

Fred Diamond: You talked about your background being in engineering. For this particular marketplace that you deal with, what do you look for? What are some of the characteristics? When someone’s going to get into sales, they want to have a nice, successful career over decades servicing the same type of customer. There’s so much possibility in sales, as we know, and you’ve risen to a nice level at Red Hat. What are some of the things that you look for when you’re hiring?

You also alluded to the fact that we’re going through an interesting time right now. A lot of companies are really struggling with The Great Resignation and people rethinking where they want to be. Just one quick comment, Nancy. The thing we realized about three months ago is that not just are our sales teams dealing with The Great Resignation, but our customers and their customers are dealing with it. So, what are some things you look for when you’re hiring right now sales reps?

Nancy Bohannan: Every challenge is an opportunity, Fred, you know that in good old sales 101 [laughs]. I really look for authentic, hard-working, passionate people that want to be successful. I do think what’s interesting about sales, it is an art and a science. You can have the best technical person kill a deal faster than you can ever guess because they don’t listen or are too hung up on the technology. You can have a relationship person that doesn’t hear what you need to hear to bring in the right people to solve the problem, so it’s really a blend between, do you have the relationship skills? Are you a good listener?

We fight for technical resources every day. Those technical resources want to help you because you treat them respectfully and treat them good. I go out with my solutions architect, “Hey, let me buy you lunch.” It’s all that soft stuff that makes a big difference, but for me, I do believe sales is a blend of art and science. When I interview people, I definitely want to see both. A lot of times, we have employees come in the first fifteen minutes to sell the value of Red Hat and they’re like, “Holy Cow, I work for Red Hat.” We never expect a great presentation because they don’t know what we know, but what we’re looking for, did they go research it? Have they put a professional slide deck together? When they’re talking, are they pausing and asking us, “Do you have any questions?” It’s more of how they’re interacting with us and how they prepared.

Fred Diamond: Speaking about that, what do you see sales reps doing wrong? You’ve managed so many sales professionals and you’ve seen them at partners and you’ve seen them in other types of entities. What do you see them doing wrong that you wish they would change?

Nancy Bohannan: One thing that surprised me, and I’m surprised at myself, one of the things that frustrates me the most is when they don’t ask for help, try to do too much themselves. We see it as a weakness. I think a great sales rep knows who to use resources. They try to control too much like, “I don’t want to bring this person in.” We have this concept like most companies, exec sponsors, where you bring executives in and some sales reps are just like, “That’s a lot of overhead for little return,” and it can be if you pick the wrong exec. But my comment to you is all major companies handle a ton of resources. Learn to use the resources and don’t be a control freak. The reality is three minds are better than one. I’ve been doing this a long, long time and I learn something every day when I talk to a junior AE.

I was on TBR and I was giving somebody a hard time for not meeting their rolling four-quarter pipeline and they snapped back at me and said, “Nancy, most of [Unintelligible 00:26:26] managed services, and managed services, as we all know, isn’t that big bang at the front. I think you need to relook how you give us goals around rolling four quarter if we’re going to sell managed services,” and I was like, I just wanted to kiss them. “I am so glad that you pushed back on me and said no, we’re transforming to do much more managed services, you need to look at your management and metrics because they don’t make sense.”

Fred Diamond: That is a great story for a couple things. One is kudos for you to being open, kudos to the junior AE for knowing his or her business. Sometimes we think we know our business and then on the ground level someone says, “This really is how it needs to go.” Actually, our Sales Game Changers podcast today was on the concept of having the confidence to ask for a meeting, for a deal or even for advice or for some guidance. Nancy, before I ask you for your final action step as we typically do at the end of the show, I’m just curious. It goes back to what you just said. What are your expectations for sales professionals right now?

We’re coming through this, and one thing you just said is we still need to hit our numbers. Over the last two years, we’ve still had to hit our numbers as sales organizations with everything that’s been going on and it’s going to be even more imperative over the next two to five years that sales performs at the highest level because everybody is coming out of this at some level. Things are going to be different the way we go about doing a lot of things. We don’t need to dwell on those right now, but what are your expectations for sales professionals at this moment?

Nancy Bohannan: I don’t think it’s changed, Fred. My number one thing I like is a plan to make a plan. I look at my number and I have a plan to make that plan. That hasn’t changed, COVID or not COVID. It’s just having a plan, allowing that plan to evolve. I think a great sales professional, they’re getting resources together to go after an area, they’ve got to have a plan to make a plan and they’ve got to articulate to their management when the plan’s working, when the plan’s not, and when they need help because they can’t figure out the plan. That’s a golden rule. You get a big number in January and I’ve never found a sales rep that liked a number I gave them [laughs] never. But after that first week, “Okay, this is it. What is my plan to make this number?” You work it two weeks, “I still can’t figure it out,” go have a meeting with your manager. For me it’s like, “Okay, if I sell 20,000 notes of Ansible, then I’ll make this number if I sell this much of this and here’s who I’m going to do it with, let’s go after this.” A plan to make a plan.

Fred Diamond: Nancy, thank you so much. Congratulations again for your leadership and for your involvement on our Women in Sales Advisory Board and all the great work you’ve done in your career. Talking today with us about how you’re working with your customers and how you’re trying to continue providing value. I was talking today with one of our upcoming guests and I said, “On every show we talk about value,” and we could definitely get some value today on what you’re trying to achieve with your customers. Give us one final action step, something specific. You’ve given us so many great ideas, but give us one more thing that people should do right now to take their sales career to the next level.

Nancy Bohannan: It goes to your daily theme. Ask for what you need. Be clear on what you need and ask. I’m a firm believer that I need to ask for what I need in all aspects of my life. We were talking about personal relationship, professional, ask for what you need.

Fred Diamond: As a leader, you don’t know until you get asked. You’re going to try to presume and you’re going to put a lot of things in play, but you’ve got a lot of people that you’re working with. Just have that courage to do that. Once again, thank you all for listening to today’s Sales Game Changers podcast and thank you Nancy Bohannan for the great insights and ideas.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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