EPISODE 638: Sales Lessons Learned from 30 Years at Intel Corporation with Sales Leader Rick Herrmann

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Today’s show featured an interview with Technology Sales Veteran and Leader Rick Herrmann, with experience at Intel and Microsoft.

Find Rick on LinkedIn.

RICK’S ADVICE:  “Focus relentlessly on your customers. We are constantly pulled in a lot of different directions. Our companies pull us in a lot of different directions. It’s okay to say no to things. If you focus relentlessly on your customer, that’s what we’re all getting paid to do, and that’s what your customer needs you to do. Think about bringing compelling value, delivering outcomes, and focus relentlessly on your customers.”


Fred Diamond: I’m excited today, we got our good friend Rick Herrmann. Rick is a senior and experienced sales leader at Intel and Microsoft. Rick, before we get into the conversation, I just want to acknowledge that Intel through you was actually the original sponsor of the Institute for Excellence in Sales, Women in Sales Leadership Forum. Prior to the pandemic, we used to do the forums at your Intel office in Northern Virginia. You are one of the key people who really saw the need for what we were doing with the Women in Sales Program, specifically the Leadership Forum. I want to acknowledge you for that. Before we get deep into this, what triggered you? What initially led you to want to be a sponsor for that?

Rick Herrmann: I have some extraordinary women on my team. You know some of them personally. I was looking for avenues and venues that would help them to raise their game. I knew IES fairly well from my own participation and the value that I get out of IES. It was a pretty simple decision to be one of the primary sponsors when it all started with Gina. But primarily, I was looking to help my female executives really raise their game in sales.

Fred Diamond: We appreciate doing that. As you know, again, we’re doing today’s recording in late 2023, and the Women in Sales Leadership Forum is now a global program. We’ve had women from all over the world participate from many great companies like Intel and Microsoft. Tell us about yourself. I’m really excited to talk to you. We’ve known each other for close to a decade now. I’ve seen some of the great things that you’ve done at Intel and Microsoft. How did you get into sales? Tell us about the beginnings and what led you into sales.

Rick Herrmann: First, thanks for the opportunity. As you said, we’ve known each other quite a long time, and we’ve talked about doing this for quite a long time. I certainly appreciate the value that the Institute brings to the sales community around the globe and the value that it’s brought to me personally. My story started as an intern in 1989 at Intel. I had the good fortune to have a mentor who was a professor that went to Intel, and she brought me there for an internship and I performed pretty well. It’s interesting, when you read through some of the really great books like Raise Your Game from Alan Stein, and he talks about doing all the little things, the hard things, the things that other people wouldn’t want to do. Those were the things that I did early in my career as an intern. Certainly, that led me to a full-time job with Intel.

When I started at Intel, I had the good fortune to be part of Intel’s high performance computing group. I started off in a very big position very quickly out of school running capture for some of the biggest most complex computer system deals on the planet. We were pursuing things like ASCI Red, which was the world’s first teraflop system. It’s interesting to think about how far we’ve come. A teraflop system in 1996 took an entire computer room, 18 cabinets, 20 megawatts of power. Today you have a teraflop of computing power sitting on your desktop. But I was the capture manager for a lot of those big deals on a global basis.

I got exposed to these fantastic sales professionals, people that were working on these incredibly complex deals and solving really big problems. We were chasing at that point in time grand challenge science problems, very similar to the types of things that we’re doing today in high performance computing. That led me to have a real passion for sales, for marketing, and eventually general management. From my perspective, it’s all about solving big problems, no matter what you’re doing, whether it’s in education, or science and research, or mission-oriented work with the federal government or in the commercial enterprise, the opportunity to really help customers solve big problems is what really inspired me to pursue a career in sales.

Fred Diamond: You talk about books. One of the most impactful books in my technology career was Andrew Grove’s Only the Paranoid Survive, I believe it was called. We get a lot of young listeners, Rick, a lot of people who are starting their sales career. Briefly, can you give us a little bit of an understanding of the impact of Intel? If anybody thinks about them, they might be thinking about the PC chips, if you will, the microprocessor, but intel’s into a lot of things. Without going really, really deep, just give us a little bit of a perspective on the role that Intel has played. You were there for close to 30 years or maybe over 30 years. Give us a little bit of a perspective on how valuable and how critical Intel was to the entire tech evolution.

Rick Herrmann: I think there’s a handful of companies that built the industry, and Intel certainly was one of those companies. The way that I like to think of Intel and what today Intel calls the silicon economy, is the silicon, the microprocessor, was the underlying foundational building block for everything that has been built. Yes, you have software stacks and evolution of incredible capabilities with software, but underlying all of that is the engine of the semiconductor industry of which Intel is one of the premier leaders in the X86 architecture, is the fundamental building block of most of what we know of computing for the last three and a half, four decades almost. Intel played a vital role and continues to play a vital role, especially as we shift into the era of artificial intelligence.

Fred Diamond: What do you most enjoy about sales? Again, you’ve been in sales your entire career. You’ve been doing this for some of the greatest companies on the planet. What do you most enjoy about it?

Rick Herrmann: I think for me, it’s the constant challenge and the constant change, especially in the field of technologies. Everything is changing. Maybe it’s overused, the constant is that you will always have change. You’ll have technological change, you’ll have political change, you’ll have different dynamics that you’ll always have to navigate. I think the skills, when we talk about the importance, IES is so good at helping sales people and people in the sales community really understand what the right skills are. For me, the right skills are resiliency and adaptability. If you don’t have resiliency and adaptability, sales is not a great place for you. For me, the thing that I’ve enjoyed most is that it’s always something new. There’s always a new innovation. There’s always a new competitor that you’re either seeing on the horizon or something that you’ve been competing against for three decades. The thing that I enjoy most about it is solving problems, solving customer problems. This relentless focus of what is the customer problem and how can the technologies that an Intel, or Microsoft, or any others in the tech community bring to bear on the problems that our customers are trying to solve.

Fred Diamond: A lot of people ask me, how do I have a great career in sales? I love the way you just described solving the big problems. The sales leaders who have achieved the most in their career with some of the biggest brands have understood what their customers are dealing with, you just mentioned for decades, and that’s really the level of understanding you need to come from. Before I ask you what the top sales professionals are doing, just curiously, if you weren’t in sales, do you have any idea what you’d be doing?

Rick Herrmann: That’s an interesting question. I think that I would tend towards being a documentary filmmaker. It’s an interesting one, and people ask me, “Why is that your response?” I’m like, “Because I really like to work on high impact projects.” I see some of these documentary filmmakers doing incredible work where they’re fundamentally changing the understanding of a problem. I think the other thing is filmmaking’s about storytelling, much in the way as sales is about storytelling. In your book, and sorry, my Hebrew may be a little bit bad here, to tick an alarm, which is heal the world, make the world a better place. In your book, lead off chapter six, and I think about that from the angle of when you’re in sales, do you have an opportunity to make a difference every day, much like a documentary filmmaker?

What you’re doing is you’re listening to a problem, you’re deconstructing that problem, and then you’re telling a story around that problem. Sounds a lot like sales. You’re really trying to understand deeply and intimately what your customer is facing. You’re trying to understand how the solutions that ultimately you’re going to bring to the table, you’re telling a story around that, and eventually you want some kind of outcome. To me, there’s this natural, natural correlation between documentary filmmaking and what you would do as a sales professional.

Fred Diamond: That’s a great example, and actually, we talk about this a lot in the Sales Game Changers Podcast and at the Institute for Excellence in Sales, is that your customers are focused on big challenges. Again, we’re doing today’s interview at the end of 2023, and every single company on the planet is still trying to figure out how to recover from the last three years, the pandemic. Of course, now, as we’re doing today’s show, there’s two wars going on, both of them very, very impactful in a lot of ways, and we’re not going to know how it turns out for years. But great salespeople understand that their customers are dealing with these big challenges. I’m glad we’re talking about this because there has to be that shift to understanding that your customers are dealing with these, and it’s first and foremost on their mind. The only value that you’re going to be providing for them is if you understand that so that you can help them achieve some of these big challenges.

We talk also a lot about elite performance, Rick. What are the best sales professionals doing right now? What are the top sales professionals doing for elite performance? Then since you’ve had so much exposure to sales leaders, what are the top and elite sales leaders doing right now as well?

Rick Herrmann: When we think about who’s performing really well, I’ll come back to what some of the really great authors and folks that you’ve had at IES speak before, and it’s getting the basics right. It’s everything from understanding the sales process, from how do you prospect appropriately, to how do you close, back to that discussion about filmmaking and storytelling, have you really taken the time to put together your compelling story? That compelling story, by the way, needs to start with a deep understanding of your customer. Just going in and evangelizing and showing up just to tell your story is not good enough. It’s how do you listen? How do you then tell the story that is relevant for your customer?

From my perspective, the elite sellers, whether they’ve been at it for three decades or whether they’re new to it really take the time to understand the process and look at the sales cycle as a process, and that you can get better at every step in that process, no matter where you are in your professional career. When I think about leaders, I think about what the typical salesperson has to deal with every day. Really great leaders are the ones that are making sure that those on the front lines are actually able to do their job, because there’s so much overhead today. The blessing of modern CRM systems, and the blessing of digitization is it’s supposed to make us more efficient. The reality is that sometimes it takes us away from what our most important things are.

I believe it’s Jeb Blunt who says, there are three things that you really need to be thinking about. What are those mission-critical things you need to get done? What are those important things to get done? What are the trivial things? Unfortunately, we get really wrapped around the axle on a lot of trivial activities in modern enterprises. When I think about what sales leaders do really well, they, number one, keep their people focused on what they’re supposed to be doing. Number two, they build a great culture. I’ll talk a little bit more about this, that I see this evolution happening in sales where orchestration is a key word for me. Building a culture that allows great teaming and great orchestration, I think is something that is really important.

Then maybe lastly, the thing that good leaders do, there’s a great book, Seeing Around Corners, they see around corners. They see what’s coming before competitors see it. They often see it because they’re on the front line with their customers. They often will see things before the senior executives’ team may see it, and they’re able to see around corners, but not just can they see around corners, they can actually take action. They can actually tell a story convincing people we should change direction, we should adapt this way. We should adapt our selling tactics. We should adapt our product line. That to me is what the elite sales leaders do today.

Fred Diamond: I want to talk to you about junior sales reps. Again, you’ve worked with a lot of people over your career, you’ve led a lot of people. Some of the women in sales that we had through our program were very talented at various levels of their career. For people that are in their first five years of sales right now, again, you’ve been doing this for close to three and a half, four decades now, what would be your specific advice for junior people who are moving into sales as a career?

Rick Herrmann: Get a great mentor. Number one priority, and probably not get a great mentor, get several great mentors. Maybe one from inside your company, maybe one from outside your company. I think really seek out their counsel. I think the second thing, and this may be a bias on my part, I’m a voracious avid reader. I love to read. There are so many really, really good books. If you want good recommendations, ask Fred. He has visibility to all of them, even as a senior executive. Just recently, I asked Fred, I said, “Tell me what your top five books are.” I’ve voraciously read all five of those books. There were new ones. There were the recent ones. There’s some good ones out there like Go-Giver and The Challenger Sale. There’s a book called The Sales Audit by Corey Hutchison, who was at VMware, really fantastic sales leader and sales executive. Number one would be mentor. Number two would be a voracious learner, however you learn, whether that’s through podcasts or through reading.

Then if your company will support it, get a coach. Be your own best advocate with your management chain. I put sales folks into one of two areas. I’ve always had sales professionals who constantly just wanted to improve, or are constantly asking me as a leader, “How can you help me improve?” Things like, “Hey, can I have an outside coach?” You should ask for those things and be passionate about asking for those things. My belief is that if you do it consistently, that you will get the help that you’re asking for.

Fred Diamond: That’s a great point about the coaching, and again, just to let our listeners know a little bit of distinction, a coach as compared to a mentor. I definitely agree with you about mentors, to get some advice, to raise some questions. But a coach will definitely say, “Here’s what you need to do to be successful,” and you have to follow your coach. I like the way you made that distinction there, that you need to understand what a coach is for. If you’re going to invest in a coach, which I definitely recommend people do who want to truly be professional, you need to be prepared to do what the coach tells you. It’s a critical distinction there.

Rick Herrmann: By the way, I think most of those coaches are going to tell you, “Know the basics.” You don’t get the basics right, even you look at folks like Alan Stein who wrote the book, Raise Your Game, talks about professional athletes and just how important and how much time and energy the elite athletes spend on just getting the basics. Forget the flashy stuff. They are first and foremost extraordinary at doing the basics right. I think the same applies for sales professionals.

Fred Diamond: Alan Stein Jr., and I have spoken about this many times, some of the great basketball players, they’re not spending three hours working on 360 dunks. They’re working on turning their feet a quarter of an inch to get a step advantage, to get a tiny opening, if you will. The same thing in sales. People talk about hacks and people talk about tricks. They don’t work. You worked at Intel for over 30 years, and the successful sales professionals there who you alluded to, they did the right stuff. They understood the customer in depthly. They did the preparation, they planned, they thought, they understood the technology, they led their way in the marketplace as well. A little bit of a different question here.

We’ve been through some challenging times over the last couple of years, and AI has come on board and there’s been global things happening. Of course, there’s some economic turmoil at the beginning of this year, if you will. Talk about motivation for a little bit. Again, reading is definitely a great way to stay motivated, especially some of the books that you and I have talked about before. What are some things that you do or that you recommend that our listeners do to stay motivated during challenging times?

Rick Herrmann: It’s a really good question. Part of me is you’re either built with a high degree of motivation to succeed, or you’re not. There’s a little bit of do you have the fire in the belly? That’s something even after three and a half decades of being in technology, I still have a passion and a fire and ability to make a difference. Knowing that I’ve had the privilege of working for an Intel and a Microsoft, and many of us would think of the companies that we work for as having a privilege of being in some of these amazing companies, but one of the things that motivates me is great culture within a company. Companies that get things done, but also have deep caring for their employees.

Empathy is a word that we used a lot during the pandemic and how leaders evolved. You saw your employees in a new and different way because you were exposed much more deeply to them, much more deeply to their family. You saw this wave of empathy. Unfortunately, I think in the last 18 months, we’ve seen a snapback maybe in the other direction. But I think that culture is so important in terms of motivating employees, and as a leader and manager, letting them know and letting people know that you care very, very deeply, not just about their career and their professions, but about them personally. I think that’s a huge motivating factor. There’s a lot of obvious ones, like do you have the right incentive structures and the basics of motivating people? But I think at the end of the day, if you have a great culture as a company, that takes care of an awful lot.

Fred Diamond: A lot of the great companies that we’ve featured on the Sales Game Changers Podcast, like two of the ones that you worked for definitely had great cultures. That’s been a big part to support the sales professional and support the sales process. It doesn’t mean it’s easy all the time. Things happen, macro things happen, micro things happen. But understanding the criticalness of the sales process for the company success.

Let’s talk about customers. What are customers expecting from sales professionals right now? We talked before about how they’re dealing with big challenges. The customers don’t need the sales professionals like they might’ve done when you started 20 years ago. You didn’t have access to all the information on the internet and through social media, if you will. But what are they expecting from you? What have you seen the valuable interactions happening with the customers right now?

Rick Herrmann: I think the sales professional is more essential than at any point in time. I’m not as bought into, “well, people can go to the internet and get all the product information, and your fact sheets, and your tear sheets, and all those types of things.” Here’s my take on things. Sales has become much more complex than at any point in time than I’ve been in the industry. This idea of not only do you have to understand your own offerings, be able to listen to your customer, their challenges, be able to align your solutions, you need to also bring the ecosystem around with you. This very idea of sales is now a game of orchestration, because companies are getting bigger. That’s just something we’ve seen over the last 10 years. The situations that they’re dealing with are more complex. They want a solution, but more than a solution, they want an outcome. No single provider can do it all. If you look at what’s happening today across artificial intelligence, across cloud, across edge computing, if you look at all of those things, the security environment, the need to protect data, no one provider can do it all.

This idea of the sales professional being more essential than ever and orchestrating a lot of those solutions to get to what those customer outcomes are, those are the conversations that I think are more meaningful. I think those are the conversations that the elite sales professionals are truly having. They’re orchestrating those entire ecosystems, not just their product solution alone. It’s a different game.

Fred Diamond: We use the expression better together. One of the common things, especially in the markets where you serve, public sector for a large part of your career, there was the whole concept of coopetition. It’s like you might be competing with somebody in one side, but on the other side, you have to work together because of the needs of the customer and legacy and what the customer’s trying to achieve.

Rick, I want to acknowledge you. Thank you so much for the great insights. Thanks again for your support of the Institute. Again, one thing that you’ve helped us understand is the role of longevity. Not just being at a place for a long time, but the value that comes with that. It’s interesting, a lot of people now, they hop jobs every couple years, but some of the great sales leaders that we’ve met through the Institute have been with a company for going on 30 years. It’s especially important, I think, when you want to truly serve a customer. We’ve seen that in a couple situations. I just want to ask that question before I ask you for your final bit of advice.

Again, you were at Intel for over 30 years. How has being with one company like that made you a more valuable asset to your customer? How has that longevity, being identified with a company, again, we’ve had some people who’ve been with Microsoft and Oracle for going on three decades, serving the same customer typically in public sector, how has that provided value for your customer, you being there for that long?

Rick Herrmann: When you take the time to really understand the customer’s problem, but then you understand all of the capabilities, it’s very difficult to understand all the capabilities of a company. When you have had the experience of knowing every nook and cranny of what value your company can bring, and how that value translates into solving a customer problem and getting to an outcome, I think it’s very difficult to do that without having the DNA. You talked about Andy Grove and Only the Paranoid Survive, and the wonderful hard driving culture of Intel. But Intel is also an immensely caring place. When something happens with its employees, I’ve never failed to see Intel step up. Having a deep understanding of all the value that the company can bring to that customer is not something that you develop in a year or two. That would be much more transactional.

Just being able to step into a customer conversation and say, “Well, I’ve been here for three decades. I’ve seen this, this, and this.” Knowing what works, knowing what doesn’t work, there’s enormous value for customers in that as you’re trying to go about solving their complex problems. Make no mistake, our customers right now throughout the globe, whether you’re in public sector or you’re a commercial enterprise, are dealing with incredible levels of complexity, which makes what sales professionals do that much more essential today.

Fred Diamond: Actually, one of the other factors as you’re saying about this that’s just occurred to me is, sales professionals need to understand this. Most of our customers, especially in tech or finance related jobs, they want to keep their jobs. They’re not looking to hop as maybe some people in tech might. They want to keep their jobs for X number of years, which means they’re continuing to, especially at the high levels, I should say really at the director level, maybe there’s a lot of turnover, of course, in C-suites, if you will. But they want to keep working. They have a passion typically, once they get to that level for what their customer’s doing, and the ability of their partners, these great sales professionals, like we’re talking about, to understand that, to work with them together for decades as well, brings a lot of value to the equation.

Rick Herrmann, once again, I want to acknowledge you. I want to thank you for the great insights today. Why don’t you give us one final action step? We typically like to end the Sales Game Changers Podcast with something specific. You’ve given us a lot of great ideas, but give us something specific that sales professionals can do right now, or should do right now, to take their sales career to the next level.

Rick Herrmann: I’ll give you a couple. I talked about going back to the basics. No matter where you are in your career in sales, if you’ve been at it for three decades, maybe go back, dust off some of your favorite books, and just go back and just remind yourself of what those basics are. If you’re new to the sales profession, then seek out good mentors and people that can really help you put some of those things into practice.

Probably the most important thing is focus relentlessly on your customers. We are constantly pulled in a lot of different directions. Our companies pull us in a lot of different directions. It’s okay to say no to things. If you focus relentlessly on your customer, that’s what we’re all getting paid to do, and that’s what your customer needs you to do. Think about bringing compelling value, delivering outcomes, and focus relentlessly on your customers.

Then maybe the last piece of advice is sales takes us away from our loved ones. It’s a demanding profession. Make sure that you stay in balance. My last advice is whether it’s friends or family, go give them a hug and tell them you love them. Make sure that you stay in balance as you pursue your professional objectives.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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