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EPISODE 237: Hear How IBM Sales Development Leader Rakhi Voria is Helping Women in Sales Take Their Careers to New Heights
RAKHI’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Map out your short- and long-term goals and think about what you need to get there. I have acquired experience in sales, business development, financing and sales strategy and now my organization actually technically sits underneath marketing. I’m getting all of these different experiences and I encourage people to think about what you want your long term goal to be and how you want to fill your tool belt.”
Rakhi Voria is the Director of Global Digital Sales Development at IBM.
Prior to coming to IBM, she was at Microsoft.
She is Forbes contributor and is passionate about advancing women in sales. Learn more about the IES Women in Sales Leadership Forum.
Find Rakhi on LinkedIn here.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us a little more about you that we need to know?
Rakhi Voria: Thanks so much for having me. I’m the Director of Global Digital Sales Development here, I joined the company just shy of a year ago and I’m responsible for the strategy implementation and revenue of our digital sales development function globally. Within this function we have several hundred digital development representatives and business development representatives all over the world and they’re responsible for lead qualification, progression and closure of select deals.
As you mentioned, I was previously at Microsoft, I held a variety of different roles across sales and business development and financing and most recently I helped Microsoft build their digital or inside sales force as the Chief of Staff to the Corporate Vice President for Worldwide Inside Sales. We hired 2,000 digital sellers in under three years and it was a lot of fun. I would say that I have some varying experiences across sales having been a seller myself, having supported a financing sales division, having helped grow and build a several billion dollar inside sales force and now managing an existing digital sales force and helping to transform and optimize it to up-level the organization and really take it to the next level.
Fred Diamond: Again, we’re doing today’s interview down in Manhattan on Astor Place and there’s a lot of vibe going on here again. We’ve actually interviewed some people from IBM, we interviewed Clara Conti who’s on the public sector side. You mentioned IBM has close to 400 thousand employees and obviously I’m going to guess everyone who’s listening to today’s podcast has heard about IBM. I’m really interested to hear about your angle and what you’re doing. Tell us a little bit about what you sell today and tell us what excites you about that.
Rakhi Voria: My team is responsible for selling a large portion of the IBM portfolio so the digital development reps and the business development reps in my organization are aligned by brand. We have some BDRs for IBM systems, as an example our IBM storage our IBM cloud and what excites me the most about managing this function in particular is that it’s really the first line of contact that a customer typically has with IBM. My team is catching the inbound responses that are coming in through our digital channels, we’re doing a lot of the outbound prospecting to our white space customers and because of that, they’re really the custodian of the IBM experience and we get to shape whether or not a customer chooses IBM versus another solution. I think with that comes a significant amount of responsibility to ensure that we’re engaging with our customers with the right touch at the right time in their digital journey.
Fred Diamond: I’m just curious, again IBM invented a lot of what we know of information technology today and I don’t want to be sounding too ignorant about all the work that IBM has done, of course but has everybody heard of IBM or are people reaching out to you because they saw an ad and it’s like ‘what do you guys do’? I’m just curious what kind of inbound leads you get.
Rakhi Voria: I would say for the most part people are very familiar with the brand as a whole, but I think because IBM has transformed and evolved over the years a lot of people might not be as familiar with some of the new innovations around things like our AI capabilities and block chain and Watson and things like that. At a high level I think maybe some people think of IBM and think of the old mainframe or hardware and I think the company has really moved into a different world now, especially with the acquisition of Red Hat last year for $34 billion, it was the largest software acquisition in history. I think there’s a lot of exciting things going on here. Luckily, we do have the brand recognition but I think we have some work to do to just educate people in the world on some of our new capabilities which is really exciting.
Fred Diamond: Let’s go back over your career, tell us how you first got into sales as a career.
Rakhi Voria: I have to say I actually fell into sales, I think many people – and many women in particular – do fall into sales. When I applied to work at Microsoft, I actually applied for a marketing position. I had had some advertising experience in the past so I thought that would be a nice segue into the company and it was actually the recruiter who put me in the queue for sales. Basically she said, “Have you ever considered a role in sales? I think you’re such a great listener and you have a consistent track record of success, and you’re a great communicator. All of those things are really important and a good fit for sales.”
I always tell people that I have this visceral reaction when she said that and I basically thought, “I would never go into sales, it’s so masculine, it’s so competitive.” I just had a lot of preconceived notions about the profession. I think even today many people still do because unfortunately sometimes sales gets a bad rep and you think of a used car salesman or whatever it might be, but I really liked Microsoft and I enjoyed the people I was meeting with. I said, “Alright, let’s go for it” and I ended up landing a role as a licensing sales specialist, I was basically responsible for helping our customers procure our licensing solutions and all of that. It’s funny, as I even think about that first role in sales I remember when I would share my title with people I would always say I’m a licensing specialist, I never said I was a licensing sales specialist and I think it’s because in the back of my mind I still viewed sales as something that people don’t like or something that’s bad.
When you think of a seller you just think of someone who’s really annoying sometimes and now my perception is completely different, but I think as I mentioned, a lot of women in particular, we tend to have some of those preconceived notions. I ended up in sales that way, ended up loving it, I ended up being really good at it. I was hitting my number, I was really effective and I loved it, I learned a lot of really tangible skills. After that role, I ended up as I mentioned moving to a Microsoft financing division where I was responsible for helping our financing sellers essentially sell Microsoft financing solutions. That was my way out of a direct sales role but still close enough to the sales team to be able to make sure they had the right training, enablement, offers and promotions in place to be able to sell the solutions. Then ended up moving to help build that digital sales force and now here at IBM.
Fred Diamond: I’m going to ask you some specific questions about women in sales because we’ve talked about that before but I’m just curious, you made that move into sales, what were some of the key lessons you learned from some of those first few sales jobs?
Rakhi Voria: I learned a lot of tangible things in sales. I think sales has just been such a great training ground for me to build a variety of different skills. Selling a product or service really helped me understand how much empathy is needed for a customer and the confidence that I built, the grit, the perseverance every time you’re told no. What better way to develop some of those skills than by having to build a relationship with a stranger? Not only did I develop some of those soft skills, I also was able to cultivate some really tangible and hard skills like how to position, how to influence, how to negotiate effectively and sales, I think really requires you to learn the business at a deep level because customers now expect our sales representatives to be very knowledgeable and to have answers.
As I think about sales, I think everyone is selling and we just don’t realize it or think about it whether it’s interviewing for a job, convincing someone to go on a vacation, I even think of my sister Pooja, she’s a physician and even she’s in sales whether she’s convincing her department to make a change or the board of her company to make an investment or outlining options for a patient on how to make an informed decision about their care. That’s still sales, we just don’t think about it in that way. I think learning how to sell well is a great thing for everyone to understand and it was and continues to be for me.
Fred Diamond: One thing we tell people when people say, “I’m not in sales”, if you have a child or a spouse or a parent, you’re definitely in sales. I want to talk about women in sales for a few moments because that’s where we first met you. You’ve done a lot of writing, you’ve organized conferences for women in sales and again you’re doing a lot of work with IBM leading some women in sales initiatives. Tell us what you think some of the big challenges are that women are overcoming that they should be looking forward to overcome.
Rakhi Voria: As you mentioned, I’ve written a little bit about this so I’ve written articles in Forbes on why we need more women in sales, why women should consider roles in sales and unfortunately I think sometimes women hold ourselves back because again, we have a lot of preconceived notions about the profession but one of the things that I always tell people is that women are actually very good at sales. In fact, there are several studies, there’s one by Hubspot a couple of years ago, it said that women are 5% more likely to close a deal than men. Sometimes we see better results from women and I think often times it’s also helpful to have women on the teams to help connect better with customers because it’s so important to have a sales force that reflects the diversity of our customer base. I think a lot of that shouldn’t be surprising, women have such strong characteristics and skills that make them a natural fit for sales like the ability to build trust, the ability to nurture relationships, listen, provide recommendations. I think it’s so important for us to continue to try to get more women into sales and also to foster environments where they can actually learn and grow once they’re here.
Fred Diamond: Tell us a little more about you, tell us a little about your area of brilliance. Tell us what you’re an expert in.
Rakhi Voria: I would say I’m an expert in putting people first. I’m a people person, I think my direct team would share that as well as my stake holders, my customers, I lead with empathy, I always try to foster a culture of empowerment and I just get so much joy out of managing and developing people. On the business side, I guess I would say that I’ve developed strong skills in driving large scale transformations and aligning people in support of a common goal. That was developed during my time at Microsoft and helping to build that sales organization and transitioning it from what the old model was to the new one and now what I’m doing here at IBM as we’re in the midst of evolving and transforming the function that I’m responsible for today.
Fred Diamond: You must have had some great mentors along the way, again you were at Microsoft for a number of years and now you’re at IBM. Tell us about an impactful sales career mentor and how they impacted your career.
Rakhi Voria: I have been fortunate to be surrounded by so many people who have invested in my growth whether it’s informal and formal, so I always encourage people to try to seek out people who are gold star that you can really learn from. If I had to choose one, I would probably choose my last boss at Microsoft, Debbie Dunnam. She was the Corporate Vice President that I was working for who led the worldwide inside sales team. She is now actually the COO of service source international so she has moved on, but she just gave me so much exposure and opportunity to learn and grow. When I was working for her I was the youngest person at Microsoft working directly for a Corporate Vice President globally and because of that, it just gave me so many opportunities to observe her leadership and action and to see how people operate at the highest levels, to have a seat at the table amongst some of our very senior leaders, have a chance to meet with some of our business partners, CEOs and customers, go to various meetings and everything.
The reason she impacted my career so much was just because she gave me a seat at the table and as I manage and lead different people I try to do the same and try to invite them to as many opportunities where they can learn and grow. I remember in particular there was a time where I was sometimes having a little bit of impostor syndrome or I was new to role and sometimes I would go to meetings with her and I didn’t feel like I was contributing as much and I was just listening and sitting there. She told me, “Even if you’re in a meeting and you don’t say a word, you should still go because not everybody gets the opportunity that you do to even be in that meeting and you should just absorb and listen and learn as much as you possibly can. One day you’ll feel confident enough to add value in the conversation but don’t pull yourself back from opportunities if people are presenting them for you.” I appreciated that advice, it’s something that I think about every single day because I think sometimes we’re sitting in meetings and you might not necessarily know everything, especially me being new to IBM. I felt that many times over the course of the past year but it just felt nice to work for someone who gave me that space to be able to contribute when and where I felt ready.
Fred Diamond: What are the two biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
Rakhi Voria: I would say the first one is probably being prescriptive but not losing creativity because I think the beauty of sales is really the fact that it’s an art and a science and you’re able to craft different deals, every deal is different, every customer journey is different. Some people haven’t adopted the cloud yet, some have, some are on premise, some aren’t so everyone is at such a different place in their journey. I think we almost over-rotate to trying to serve our sellers everything and we basically are trying to automate so many things and serve up recommendations and the goal is to make it as easy as possible for them to sell. That’s all important but at the same time one thing that keeps me up at night that I think a lot about is how do we do that in a way that doesn’t make our sales force robotic? That continues to foster that level of empathy that I talked about and the creativity that I think is needed to be able to really craft a deal.
The second piece is probably just around hiring. As you mentioned, I’m very passionate about hiring a diverse sales force whether that is women and having as many women as possible on a team but also just having people with different backgrounds, industry hires, maybe people who have come from more non-traditional sources. I’ve actually found that some of the best sales hires I’ve ever made were from the military or from retail stores or places that maybe you wouldn’t necessarily expect. I’d say the reason hiring can be a challenge is just because it takes extra effort to find some of those people because they’re the ones that hold themselves back because they were similar to me a decade ago and didn’t necessarily consider sales as a viable or a worthwhile career path.
So, as leaders of sales organizations it’s important for us to be really intentional about seeking out some of those individuals and thinking about our recruiting processes, even the job descriptions that we’re writing, making sure we’re really red-lining them and taking out some of the masculine language that might be in there. I see some job descriptions out there that say they’re looking for people who have a competitive sports background and as I think about myself, I can barely throw a ball much less catch one, I probably would have seen that on a job description and not applied for the job. These little things I think make a really big difference when we’re trying to widen the pool in terms of hiring.
Fred Diamond: I have a question for you again. We talked about one of the reasons why you came to IBM is there’s so much going on and it’s transforming and everything else like that. I’ll give you a chance to give a plug for IBM, why would someone come work in sales at IBM?
Rakhi Voria: Great question. I would say the #1 thing is the opportunity that it provides next. First of all, the beauty of working at a massive company like IBM is that there’s so many different avenues and paths. You could start in sales, maybe you want to pivot, go into marketing, go into finance, etcetera and working at such a big company it allows that flexibility and opportunity to move up, down and across and grow horizontally while still making your way up vertically. That’s why I think sales at IBM is a great place to start, it’s also a really great portfolio across services, hardware, software so it gives you a lot of exposure to different product sets.
Also, I think technology in general is just a really great field, technology sales is important. Every other industry relies on technology, it’s innovative, it’s ever-changing, it’s the future so I think for those reasons, sales at IBM would be great but then also finally on the enablement side, IBM invests a lot in seller enablement. We have IBM Global Sale School that all sellers go through, every division actually has their own set of offerings and enablement tracks and that’s one of the #1 things that we get feedback on during our employee engagement results is just the options and opportunities from a training perspective, I think that really lands well specifically with millennials who want to learn and grow as much as possible. The beauty is we have a lot of that in house which is great.
Fred Diamond: Before we take a short break and listen to one of our sponsors, take us back to the #1 sale success or win from your career you’re most proud of.
Rakhi Voria: I would say it would be helping Microsoft to build that sales force. When I joined that team I was the fourth employee and as I mentioned, we hired 2,000 people in under three years so it was really massive growth. I remember there was a time where we had brought our first thousand hires together in Vegas for a sales conference and I remember standing on that stage and looking out at them and thinking, “Wow, we built this” and just seeing the excited faces and the profile of people. As I mentioned, I was really proud of the diversity numbers that we were able to bring in even though we were under pressure to hire quickly, that was something that was so important to our leadership. That’s why we were able to have some good diverse numbers which was great. That’s one thing that I reflect on and I’m really proud of and I leverage all of those learnings here now at IBM and I’m hoping to drive similar transformation here and I’m really excited about it.
Fred Diamond: That’s a huge challenge, getting that number of people to come to one company. Again, before we take a short break and listen to one of our sponsors, you mentioned that originally when you were applying for some jobs you were looking at marketing jobs. Was that your degree in college? Were you a marketing or business major?
Rakhi Voria: No, I studied international political economics and journalism at Colorado College and then I got a master’s at Oxford in comparative social policy. For those of you who are listening and you think you need a business background or whatever it might be, maybe you’re still in school or wherever you’re at in your journey, there is really no linear path into sales. I think that’s really the beauty of it and I think people are looking for people with a diverse background and skill set.
Fred Diamond: With those degrees and with the marketing thing you were looking at originally, did you ever question being in sales? Again, you had a great mentor here and you’ve accomplished great things in a relatively short amount of time but did you ever say to yourself, “It really is too hard, it’s really just not for me”?
Rakhi Voria: Many times, yes. As much as I loved it, as much as I was thriving, there were definitely times especially as a woman and a young woman in sales where I questioned whether or not I had the right background for it and the right style for it. I remember early on when I had first started a sales role, I was in a customer meeting with one of my account managers who as a male and he had shared some information with a customer that was just a little bit outdated and I corrected him in what I hopefully thought was a really respectful way and I said, “Actually, that’s changed” and I wanted to share the latest offering. He said in front of the customer, “Sweetheart, I’ve been in sales longer than you’ve been alive.”
I remember in that moment I was just so shocked that I didn’t really know what to say, I think I was 22 years old at the time, no one had ever said anything like that to me and it was times like that which unfortunately happened more often than not. I think anyone who is young or women in particular, we tend to face some of these types of biases and whatnot. There were times like that where I thought to myself, “Maybe I just don’t have the style to be successful in sales” and then I would just have to shake it off like Taylor Swift says [laughs] and I would have to just remind myself that there’s a reason why I’m there. Even though I didn’t have a super aggressive, loud or competitive personality I think that’s actually what made me successful in sales, the fact that I had a little bit more of a reserved, quiet style where I was listening more than I was speaking. In the end as I developed in my career and grew a little bit more confidence and worked with people who were more supportive than that gentleman was, it actually helped because sometimes I was able to play good cop, bad cop with some of my peer sellers. Some of the men or even the women who had a more aggressive style, I could soften the pitch and we really worked effectively together. I would just encourage people, there is no specific profile for a seller, every style can work in this environment and in this profession and it’s really important to stay true to yourself, otherwise the customer will see that and it’ll show and you won’t be successful.
Fred Diamond: Thank you for offering that story, I appreciate it. I just have to ask one question, you mentioned Taylor Swift, ‘just shake it off’ but did you talk to anybody afterwards, did you talk to him, did you talk to your friends, did you talk to Debbie? How did you, again, ‘shake it off’? That’s great. You were young so for the listeners out there, what did you do to get past that?
Rakhi Voria: I did talk to a few people, I think I talked to my manager at the time, I talked to a mentor and ultimately I ended up talking to his manager because we had different reporting lines and I didn’t want to, I think I was so shocked, it was such a strange situation but I ended up sharing what happened and I just asked a few people, “What would you have done?” I got different answers, some people said, “You should have said something in there” and, “You should have let him know that wasn’t okay” and it was just so awkward because it was in a customer meeting, you obviously don’t want to cause any drama in front of our customers or anything. In the end, one of the people that I had confided in actually had reported it more formally to HR and after that I don’t know if that led to him leaving or what, but shortly thereafter he actually was no longer at the company.
I don’t think it was necessarily that specific instance, I think it was probably many other things that maybe had come up but now that I am older and more senior and more confident in who I am, I think back at that situation and I think there are things I wish I would have done differently, but I guess I’m glad that I did share what happened with certain people. I unfortunately think stories like that still happen all the time so the more we can talk about it, the more that we can share what’s happening, the more that we can find people who are going to fight that fight for us if maybe we’re not in a place where we’re comfortable to do it ourselves yet, the better. That’s why it’s so important to surround yourself with people who will call other people out and who will support you in those instances.
Fred Diamond: What’s the most important thing you want to get across to the sales professionals listening around the globe to help them take their careers to the next level?
Rakhi Voria: My advice would be to map out your short term and your long term goals and think about what you need to get there. I know that is very high level but that really helped me and I think it’s a balance between being really specific and clear about what the outcome is but not over-engineering it because you’re never going to be able to build every step of the way. For me as I thought about my career, I always have been the type of person where I like to get a breadth of experiences and eventually one day I would like to be working in a C suite of a big Fortune 500 company like IBM and I think because of that, I’ve built more of a portfolio career. I told myself, “I have a tool belt, what are all the tools that I need within my tool belt?”
I have gotten experience in sales, I’ve gotten experience in business development and financing and sales strategy and now my organization actually technically sits underneath marketing. I’m getting all of these different experiences and I encourage people to think about what you want your long term goal to be and how you want to fill your tool belt. It’s okay to want to have a specific and narrow focus, you could start as a seller and then go into sales management and then maybe be a VP of sales or you could be a seller and just move to another sales role in a different division or a different part of the world. Not everybody has the same goals and aspirations, it’s okay if you don’t want to be the CEO of your company, it’s okay if you want to take on vertical challenges, it’s okay if you want to take on horizontal challenges. I think it’s important to think about what you want to get out of your career and then also align the right mentors and people to help you get there.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about one of your selling habits that has led to your sales success.
Rakhi Voria: I think the biggest thing that I did early on in my career and continue to do today is I always try to find out who’s gold star in any role and spend some time with them. I know that’s not technically a selling habit but it’s something that I did to help me build my own selling habits, if that makes sense. I would always spend time with the people who were knocking their numbers out of the park and who were always winning the awards and closing all these big deals and I would ask them if I could chat with them whether it’s in person, whether it’s virtually. Nowadays we have the tools to do things like that, most of sales is typically done digitally or over the phone now anyways. I have always adopted that habit where I spend some time with people who are gold star and I adopt their practices and I develop my own style. I always encourage people to do the same because I think that’s really how you can build your own sales success and take tips and tricks from different people throughout your organization or even outside of it.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us about a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Rakhi Voria: As I mentioned, I’ve been in IBM for just under a year. I’m responsible for the digital sales development function and actually just a couple of weeks ago at the turn of the year we announced some exciting changes to the function. That’s been a major initiative and transformation effort and basically when I first came to IBM I spent a lot of time traveling the world spending time with our sellers sitting side by side with them and our managers to understand what they do on a day to day basis, what tools they’re using, what’s working, what’s not. Through that I was able to pull together some recommendations on what I think we need to do differently. There were definitely a few consistent themes but the main one was just we have some amazingly sharp and talented sellers, but we are asking them to do so many different things.
We’re trying to be everything to everyone so we’ve really spent a lot of time looking at the data and analytics to see what is actually converting the most and what activities are working well and which ones aren’t. We’ve been re-jiggering our sales force to basically focus more on a specific set of activities so that we can build competence and specialization across the globe. We just announced and launched some of these changes recently and I’m really excited to see how it pans out over the next few months. I think being new in any organization presents a really exciting opportunity and as I’ve thought about my own career since that was one of the questions you asked, what was exciting to me about this was when I was at Microsoft to help build an organization and now that I’m here, I’m getting a chance to really optimize and change an organization. I also think it’s important for people to think about balancing transforming versus performing and how to get both experiences under the belt over the course of your career.
Fred Diamond: I want to thank you so much for being on today’s Sales Game Changers podcast. Again, in a relatively short time you’ve done some amazing things with obviously two of the most successful companies in the history of technology and I appreciate a lot of your insights. I’m going to ask you for your final tip. Again, you mentioned you went around the world with IBM meeting their sellers and learning more about what they’re doing, we have Sales Game Changers listening around the globe, I’m going to ask you for your final tip but one last question. Sales is hard, there used to be the joke about IBM that people are always going to take your phone call if you’re calling from IBM but people don’t return phone calls or emails, they get called by salespeople all the time, they can find the information up on the internet. Why have you continued? Again, you’ve been in sales for a relatively short amount of time but what is it about sales as a career that has kept you going?
Rakhi Voria: I think there’s a few different reasons but the main one is I just think it’s fun. Every day is different, it’s a chance to be close to our customers which is so marketable, everybody wants to understand what excites customers, what’s working for them, what’s not so I think sales is such a marketable and transferable skill. It’s great to hear what’s actually going on in the industry, it keeps you grounded because sometimes when I’ve been in more corporate roles or roles that take me away from the customer, you just have a different level of engagement and understanding of what’s actually going on on the ground on a day to day basis. Those are some of the reasons why I stayed in sales but what’s funny is if I’m being honest, it’s been several years since I’ve been in a direct sales role and that’s why I always like to share my journey, because I want to expose people to the fact that even if you start in a traditional sales role there’s a lot of different directions that you can go in your career. For me, now my work is obviously sales management and managing the sales force but a lot of it is sales strategy and that’s what excites me. It’s the opportunity to help think about how we make it easier for our sellers to actually do their job.
Fred Diamond: Give us a final thought to inspire them today.
Rakhi Voria: I would say let’s continue to find ways to break barriers in sales. Even today, I do believe that there are a lot of preconceived notions about the profession being not a worthwhile career path and that it’s only a certain profile of people who can be successful in sales. I would encourage every single one of you who are listening, whether you are currently in sales or not, let’s find ways to showcase sales as a different profession and the profession to be in because it really is such a great way to develop tangible skills. It can be very lucrative as many people know, it gives you a flexible lifestyle and it’s just a great opportunity to develop some skill sets. I would really encourage people to think about how we can break some of those barriers and change perceptions about the profession.