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EPISODE 073: Rick Simmons Applies the Skills that Took Him to the Bowie State Football Hall of Fame to the Top 1% of Sales Success
RICK’S CLOSING TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “You’ve got to stay focused and most of all you have to believe in yourself. At the end of the day, you can be your worst enemy or the best person to get you to where you want to go if you believe, and if we all believe and we believe that we can make a difference, we can achieve great things, we can help others achieve great things. Then you’ll have a very successful sales career and a professional, personal career too.“
Rick Simmons is a college football Hall-of-Famer, who has used his experience learned during his football career as a foundation in building a successful sales career.
He has more than 30 years of technology sales experience and has held various sales leadership positions in some of the world’s greatest technology companies including Digital Equipment Corporation, Apple Computer, Silicon Graphics, Oracle and Brocade Communications.
During his career, he has consistently been in the top 10% of sales performers, he’s received numerous awards during career, his career including rep of the year, executive of the year and has participated in over 25 president club awards for sales excellence.
Rick attended Bowie State University where he played football and participated in an NFL combine after his senior year. He was the first minority individual inductee into the sports hall of fame at Bowie State. Rick completed his BS degree in business management eventually from the University of Maryland.
Find Rick on LinkedIN!
Fred Diamond: Very good, I’m excited to talk to you for a bunch of reasons. You’ve had a great career and I want to learn some of the stories and how some of your lessons from being on the grid iron and obviously on the hoops court has translated. You were also referenced in Sales Game Changers episode #009, we did an interview with Anthony Robins who of course worked at Brocade and he mentioned that you were one of his mentors, so I’m very excited to bring some of this full-circle and keep that spirit going.
Rick Simmons: Yeah, that would be great. I have a great story about Anthony and of course Anthony mentioned that story when he did his interview. I’ll blend that in to talking about what I learned during my playing days at Bowie about diversity and looking at people from a different stand point. Anthony and his story probably told you he had a background that was not typical of who you would hire for the kind of position we were trying to fill at that time and I credit that to the fact that my experience at Bowie made me think about looking at people in a different way. That’s how I ended up playing ball with Anthony but also giving him an opportunity to do something that he probably would have never had an opportunity to do.
Fred Diamond: Very good. Tell us a little bit about Bowie University and a little bit about your background, it’s an interesting story, here. Tell us a little bit about how you got to be on that team and why don’t you start telling us some of the lessons that you learned from that?
Rick Simmons: Greatest thing that ever happened to me. I get a lot of questions about how did I end up at Bowie State. I’m from Laurel, Maryland which is not far from where we’re at today. Played high school sports, played three sports in high school – football, basketball, baseball – and got a chance to go to Bowie State on a grant. I wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school, I wanted to stay close to home and Bowie gave me an opportunity to come in and to play. They gave me a grant for financial aid so I didn’t have that burden and so I have an opportunity to play college football, getting a college education was something that was important to me.
But at the time, I knew Bowie was a historically black college and university and I had an opportunity to meet the head coach, and he was a great guy and one of the things he said to me was, “Rick, we’re going to treat you like everyone else. You step on the field and on the football field there is no color and so you will have an opportunity just like everyone else.” and to his credit, he did give me that opportunity but what it did do was take me out of my world of comfort.
I grew up in a school that was a majority white school and going to a historically black college university I had to adjust and modify how I looked at things and I was put in a very uncomfortable and complex environment that I had never lived through before. It taught me a lot about people, taught me a lot about challenges and adversity, never giving up, being pushed to the max, but it also gave me a perspective on how other people who are minorities, their culture, their life and how to get along and communicate and be integrated with their culture so that we all could become one as a team and really become brothers. That’s what happened at the end of my 4 years there.
Fred Diamond: Good, I’m looking forward to seeing some of the lessons that you’re going to tie into today’s Sales Game Changers podcast as we go through that. Get us caught up on what you’re doing today. What do you sell today, and tell us what excites you about that.
Rick Simmons: As you know, you probably read that I was with Brocade Communication and we’ve gone through an acquisition that just closed this summer. Brocade’s a two billion dollar company that was acquired by Broadcom for five billion. My responsibility was being the executive for the North American software sales organization, so I had a whole team across North America that I managed. We divested that business and I’m in the process right now looking for my next opportunity, exploring new opportunities, but I’ve been given an opportunity to look at two things that I’ve got a tremendous amount of interest in and passion for.
As I transition to my next opportunity, I’ve been spending some time doing some consulting with some small to mid-sized companies. I’ve taken my 30 years of sales and management experience and taken that to smaller organizations that maybe don’t have direction, process, leadership that they need to get their sales to the next level. I’ve been brought in to help develop some of those strategies. The other thing that I’m doing that I really have a lot of passion about and that is an opportunity to get out and talk to people about my story, going to a historically black college, about acceptance and respect and diversity.
All those things that there’s a lot that’s being discussed right now in society, and my story’s a little different that I had to go figure out how to thrive in that type of environment, and I want to have an opportunity to talk to others about that and inspire them to get out of their comfort zone and go do something different and have success and learn from that like I did when I went to Bowie.
Fred Diamond: Very powerful. Why don’t you tell us about your sales career? How did you first get into sales as a career?
Rick Simmons: It’s interesting. Everybody has their story about how they got into sales. Mine is a little different and unique. As I mentioned, when I came out of Bowie, on my senior year I was invited to the NFL combine in Atlanta so I attended that. Coming back from the combine, I had a chance to talk to a guy in Laurel, his name was Bob Windsor, he had played in NFL for 10, 11 years. Played with the 49ers and the Patriots and he had retired. He knew of me from the fact that I played at Bowie, I was from Laurel and he lived in Laurel. He offered to help me to try to get into a camp and he also had a sporting goods store in Laurel. He offered me an opportunity to work at the sporting goods store while he was helping me to get into a camp.
To make a long story short, it didn’t work out from the beginning at the camp and I ended up spending about two years working for Bob in the sporting goods store selling softball uniforms and tennis shoes and sporting goods and after about two years, I decided that I wanted to do something bigger and greater.
I had an opportunity to interview at Digital Equipment Corporation and went through the interview process and actually got hired. There was 40 candidates and for some reason I came out on top and they gave me an opportunity to come into their order processing area so I started off processing purchase orders for the sales organization. It didn’t take me too long to figure out that where I really wanted to be was in the sales organization. Back in those days, DEC traditionally only hired engineers as sales reps. They didn’t traditionally hire marketing or typical sales reps but they were going through a transition where they were starting to bring in outside sales people that didn’t have an engineering degree, but they wanted you to be technical.
So what I did was I went to the sales leadership and said, “OK, I want an opportunity to go into sales, what do I need to do?” and they said, “Well, you got to have these certificates technical, and you have to have that before we’ll let you interview.” So I spent nine months every night, five days a week, in their technical education training center going through their online training courses. Each time I passed and got one of their certificates – I had to get 12 – I would take it to the region manager, knock on his door, open the door, show him the certificate and I would say, “One down, two down…” to twelve, and when I got my last one I said, “OK, I met my commitment, now I want an opportunity to interview.” To his credit, he gave me an opportunity. He said, “No guarantees, but we’ll let you interview for a sales job.”
Fred Diamond: For some of the Sales Game Changers listening on today’s podcast, they were basically two companies that owned the computer world years ago. IBM, of course, and there was actually six other large main frame companies, but Digital Equipment Corporation or DEC was the inventor of the mini computer.
Rick Simmons: Exactly.
Fred Diamond: They had its own operating system and eventually was purchased by Compaq Computer in the 90’s. I wonder how many people are talking about DEC today on the sales podcast, but it was definitely a great place to learn. They definitely had their customers and it definitely was a computer company for engineers. What are some of the lessons that you learned when you first made it into sales from there?
Rick Simmons: DEC had a very rigorous, formal training process. Back in those days, when you went into the sales organization, you would be in training for almost a year before they’d put you in front of a customer. The fundamentals of sale skills includes planning, not flying by the seat of your pants, understanding the technology so you could differentiate and add credibility as a sales rep to your customer. How to use resources, how to put account management plans together, all the fundamental things that are required for a professional sales rep to be successful when they get out into the field.
The thing I took away from that that was burnt into my head over those 9 months was the fact that you have to have good, strong fundamentals and you always have to fall back on those fundamentals especially when the times are tough. It’s easy when deals are closing and things are going well and it seems like everything’s lining up for you and falling into place, but that’s not always the case. When times are tough is when you need to have those fundamentals to fall back on.
Are you planning? Are you thinking about what you’re trying to accomplish when you’re working with the customers? Are you focused on dealing with the right people, that people can make things happen? These are all fundamentals that as a sales professional, you’ve got to continually hone those skills and I learned that from those 9 months that I spent up in New Hampshire going through the sales training program at DEC.
Fred Diamond: You said you spent a year in training before you even got out into the field, which is pretty incredible. A lot of the Sales Game Changers that are listening to today’s podcast around the world don’t have years’ worth of training, so one thing that we’re going to get from you throughout the course of today are what are some of the things that they should be doing in order to be successful, to take their career to the next level. Rick, tell us what you are specifically an expert in. Tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
Rick Simmons: What I’ve been able to do – especially over the last 20 years – is I’ve worked with companies out of Silicon Valley who have innovative, emerging technology and I’ve been able to take that technology into new marketplaces, typically into the federal government. If there’s one thing that I believe I’ve developed a real skill in is being able to recognize emerging technology and how that emerging technology can be used to advance the mission of the government primarily and of course enterprise.
But my skill is taking the technology, building a team around that, going to market and then building a business out that has become significant for the overall business of the company so that devaluation and the market place is more accepting of the company, the organization as someone who’s a player in the space.
Fred Diamond: Again, we first became aware of you, actually I’ve known of you for 30 years. We both worked at Apple Computer at the same time. Anthony Robins, episode #009 talked about how you were one of his mentors. Why don’t you tell us about an impactful sales career mentor and how they impacted your career?
Rick Simmons: I was very fortunate. I’ve had a number of mentors over the years. At DEC I had a mentor that I’m still connected with. In fact, we worked together at Brocade and his name is Craig Reichenbach and Craig, back when I was first getting into sales, he’s that guy that everybody put up on the pedestal, “This is who you want to be like”. Craig was a professional, he was someone who was well-prepared, always had a plan, great presenter, great customer relationships and also the thing about Craig was he was honest.
He was straightforward. When there was technology that a customer was interested in, Craig would do his research and be able to position what technology they were looking at versus what he had to offer. At times, I saw Craig recommend our competitor because they had a better solution than we did. Now, from that came tremendous credibility, so anytime that a customer came to Craig after that and said, “Craig, we’re trying to solve this business problem. Do you have the right solution for that?” When Craig said, “Yes, we can solve that problem”, instant credibility that yeah, they believed that we could.
Fred Diamond: How powerful is that? You obviously have a quota, your boss as a quota and his boss has a quota (or hers) and you need to hit certain deadlines and things like that, and here’s a guy – you’re talking probably 20, 30 years ago – who was recommending the competitor in various situations, knowing that you didn’t have a solution. A lot of times we heard some stories where someone, a sales rep would say, “Oh, we can definitely serve you” without even knowing if you could even provide that in the products that you were offering and then going back to corporate and saying, “Hey, we just closed this deal but we got to do X, Y and Z.” What power this guy had in being able to tell the customer that “we don’t offer this, you may want to go check out these guys, if you will”, then knowing they’re going to come back to you because you helped them out.
Rick Simmons: Exactly. My experience has been where you have those situations, I’ve seen sales reps do this. They’ll go sell something that is in the road map or the futures that is just not there and then try to make it work. Typically, what happens is it ends up not meeting their requirements, costing a lot of money to spend time and resources to try to develop, then you cause a customer relationship issue, a customer support issue because it’s a one off and one of the things I try to convey to my team is, “Let’s sell what we have in the bag and we know it’s reliable, we can support it, it’s good technology” before we start doing science projects and getting involved with things that may not work or could work.
The other part of that that every sales leader has to be thinking about is things we have on the pipeline and that are working, if they’re on that pipeline forever, that’s a problem because it inflates the real opportunities you’re working. Doing those kinds of things has implications from customer satisfaction, customer support, all the way through, “Is it real business and is it something that’s repeatable?”
Fred Diamond: Rick, what are two of the biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
Rick Simmons: I think the biggest challenge that most sales leaders have is the team, the people. My job as the sales leader is to go find the best of the best, bring them on board and make sure that we have a way of getting them up to speed so they can be successful and making sure that we’re constantly motivating and inspiring them to be successful. One, if they’re motivated and inspired, it’s contagious through the organization. If they feel like they’re having success and they’re making their number, they’re growing the business, the other piece of that that is critical with the people and the team you’re building is that you have to recognize people for what they’re doing.
In studies that I’ve read – and I’ve studied this to understand why people leave organizations, especially top performers – it’s 90% of the time, it’s not about money. It’s about the fact that they didn’t feel like they were being recognized for what their contributions were. As a sales leader, I try to focus on finding the best people that I can find, making sure that they’re motivated, inspired and also that we recognize them for it. The other challenge that I have that goes along with this is the fact that you can’t assume that all your sales reps SE’s, in my case in a more technical sales environment, have the fundamentals. Training isn’t offered the way it was 25 years ago or longer when I got started. We spent a year in training. Now, we bring on new people, we give them a laptop, business cards, a phone and a territory and of course a quota and we say, “Let’s go make it happen.”
One of the things that I try to do as a sales leader is not assume they do have those fundamentals and work with them to show them what are some of the fundamentals. I do things like – role plays were a big thing back when I was going through training, and having a fundamental structure on how to run a sales call and do a presentation. So during my QBR’s, I always do a session around skills where we have reps and SC’s, I should present what is the value proposition, what’s objections, what’s the competition, how do you present the solution that addresses the business problem. So as a sales leader, don’t assume that your people have the skills that is going to help them to be successful, and if you can help them to develop those skills, hone those skills and teach them that this is something that is always going to be ongoing and should never stop, they’ll happen to reach their goals, be successful and it impacts the whole team and environment.
Fred Diamond: Rick, I have a question for you. One thing that frequently comes up, a major theme through the Sales Game Changers podcast is a lot of the people that I’ve interviewed – and we’ve interviewed nearly 100 people at this point – the whole concept of practicing your craft and treating sales as a true profession and a lot of the Sales Game Changers that I’ll interview, they’ll say you need to practice the same way that a professional athlete will practice 90% of the time and 3 hours of their life per week is the game, and even then they’re depending on their position. So you, actually, were on the field. You actually practiced hundreds if not thousands of hours running routes, catching balls, being in sync with your quarterback and the rest of the offense, you said you played wide receiver. Talked about the concept of practicing the craft in sales since you actually have had real world experience practicing your craft and your playing college ball. Does that make sense? Shouldn’t a sales rep be practicing? One of our interviewees, one of our guests on the Sales Game Changers said a lot of times sales reps will practice in front of the customer for the first time. I guarantee you, you’re not going to run a route for the first time ever out on the game day. Talk about that for a little bit, does that make sense? Is that applied to this or no?
Rick Simmons: This is critical to be in the top 1%. If you want to be the top 1% of your profession, you’ve got to rehearse, practice and it has to become a part of your muscle memory. The only way that happens is you put in different scenarios, you get into a room, if you have a sales call you’re going on, you go through what’s all the scenarios that could happen. Start off with what do you want to accomplish.
Do we have a plan of attack? What’s my role as the Sales Rep? The SC. And then when you bring in your manager, what is the manager’s role? But before you ever go in front of a customer, you should practice what you’re going to say, how you’re going to open, how you’re going to close and have those things because what happens is when you get into the sales environment on site at a customer, the environment changes.
All of the sudden, the person that was supposed to be there is not there, now you’ve got to change your strategy. So you’ve got to be able to operate on the fly sometimes and adjust, just like on the football field. On the football field when you come up to line of scrimmage, things are not always the way you saw them on film or in practice but if you’ve practiced different scenarios, talked about different options that can happen while you’re in the sales call or on the football field, then you can adjust and stay on the control because that’s the key.
Maintaining composure, maintaining control of the situation so that you have credibility with the customer and that you are leading towards something, a close of something. When you lose control and you fly by the seat of your pants – and I’ve seen this happen a lot – reps do not get to that point where we know where we’re going from here.
Fred Diamond: Take us back to the #1 specific sale success or win from your career that you’re most proud of. Rick, take us back to that moment.
Rick Simmons: There’s a lot of proud moments I’ve had. At Apple, when we were there on the federal side, you probably remember this deal, for four thousand Macs. I remember working with the team there, we were on the re seller side falcon and that was a big win because that changed the world for Apple and the federal government, so that’s a big one.
When I was with SGI, I had an opportunity to work with National Cancer Institute where we brought 3D graphics and molecular modeling to discover a chemical compound that was used as a treatment for cancer, very rewarding and something that had impact around the world. Recently, probably one of the most win that comes to mind for me is when I was in Solera Networks, we were a small startup in the cyber security space and we were looking to figure out how to scale the business.
The way you scale the business in the federal space is that you have to go after and win a multiyear program. We targeted an opportunity that was a technology refresh at the air-force cyber command. The computers had been there for years, they had about almost 100 million dollars’ worth at install base of equipment but the government, in particular the cyber command, was looking for alternatives. They were looking for something compelling that was different so we huddled, we were a small little company, we got in a conference room and as a team we said, “What could we do that could change the whole market and make it compelling so that the government air force would take us seriously and look at us, not just use us as bait to try to get a better price from our competitor?”
We came up with a solution where we un-bundled our hardware and software. This was revolutionary at the time, about 5 years ago – 4, 5 years ago – and what we said was this. We’re going to give the government an opportunity to buy our software, all they could eat, and un couple it from their traditional appliance that typically you had to buy with it and they could go to their commodity hardware vendors and buy the lowest cost platform but yet get the high quality software that we offered and run it on that. It ended up saving the government hundreds of millions of dollars over years because we came in with a totally different way of solving the problem, it was compelling, it made financial sense and in order to get that done, we had to get in front of the right people within the air force, in front of their consultants at at the time, and work with, in this particular case, Dell.
So putting all that together, we won a big deal of 8 million dollars. It was the first phase of the deal, the following was 30 million, changed the whole trajectory of the company. We became from a million, two million dollar company to a 15 million dollar company. The next year, we were 42 million, then we were acquired.
Fred Diamond: Rick, you’ve had a great career in sales. Did you ever question being in sales? Again, your first sales job was at a sporting goods store, your first job with DEC was in operations and you quickly realized that you wanted to be in sales. Did you ever question being in sales? Was there ever a moment where you thought to yourself, “It’s too hard, it’s just not for me”?
Rick Simmons: I never questioned, and I got an interesting story I’ll tell you. I mentioned DEC, right? I went to their training program for 9 months. Now, in order to graduate through the program, the last part of the actual program itself was completing this one section where you had to go in and perform, do a role play and do all these things that manage the sales calls a certain way. Well, I didn’t make the passing grade on this last piece. It was on a Friday. If you passed, you go to the next week where you continue and then you graduate.
I was pulled out of the class and said I didn’t make the mark, so they sent me home. I was led out of the room, out to the front of the office, there was a van there, had my suitcase in it and within two hours I was on a plane back to DC. So one, I could have said, “I’m not doing this again, I quit” or two, I could have said, “There’s no way I’m not going to do this.” So I chose, “There’s no way I’m not going to make it through this process” so I started over, worked on my skills, best thing that ever happened to me because I really had to look inside and say, “You know what?
They were right, I wasn’t ready” so I had to go hone my skills, get better, remain positive about what I wanted to do and believe in myself. I went back up, got through the session – in fact, I won the award as the top person – came back to the field and eventually over 6 years, won each year, I was in the top 10% of performance. My last year, I was the top sales rep out of 150 sales reps.
Fred Diamond: Rick, let’s get some of your tips. What’s the most important thing you want to get across to junior selling professionals to help them improve their career?
Rick Simmons: First of all, I think the most important word you said there was professional. In order to be a professional, you have to continuously work at your skill. It’s never ending, you have to focus on their fundamentals.
It’s interesting, I was in New York a couple of years ago and my daughter had gotten engaged and I went up there for that and I was staying at a hotel that was right beside the Knicks headquarters, New York Knicks, and I came down early for breakfast. I ran into Phil Jackson in the dining room. We were sitting there and I had a golf shirt on at the time, he said something to me about it, “Hey, are you playing golf today?” and I was like, “No, I’m just up here for my daughter’s engagement.” He said, “Hey, do you want to join me for practice?” “Sure.”
So I was talking to Phil, and what we talked about were teams, in particular rookies and people coming into the NBA and I said to him, “What do you look for? What advice do you give to kids who are coming in new just like in sales?” and he said to me, which really struck a chord with me was he used Michael Jordan as an example. He said Michael Jordan, from the day he got into the NBA and every day in practice the whole time he coached him, the first thing that he worked on every day was fundamentals and he looked at where he was weak and where he had strengths. He focused on his weaknesses and he improved his strengths.
This is the lesson or advice I would give anyone who’s a junior sales rep coming in, is take a look at yourself. Do role plays, get a partner that you can work with that can help you understand where you’re strong, where you’re weak, how do you organize a call, how do you manage it so that you can get an outcome. Because the worst thing you can do is go in sales calls after sales calls and not get to a point where you get closure. So you have to continue to work on those fundamentals because it is a profession.
Fred Diamond: Absolutely. What are some of the things that you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Rick Simmons: What I do is I look at things and areas that I believe I need to improve on, such as right now I’m engaged with the National Speakers Association and I am part of the group that eventually will be certified as a national speaker. That’s an area that I need to continue to improve my skill with. I also spend a lot of time looking at new, evolving technology, emerging technology.
Right now, it’s artificial intelligence, machine learning, behavioral analytics. I’ve been in the security space for the last 15, 20 years so I’m constantly staying on top of what’s the next emerging technologies coming and how’s that impact what the government, what the enterprise, how they’re trying to address their hardest problems.
Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Rick Simmons: I’m doing actually two things: One is social media has changed everything. Social media is how everybody gets information and distributes information and learns about technology so I’m spending time on trying to figure out how do I better leverage LinkedIn? How do I better leverage tools that will help me understand who’s doing what where in the industry because you can go there and find who you worked with 20 years ago, what they’re doing, new companies, new technology, because they’re all putting things up on LinkedIn.
But it gives me a chance to also post things and write things and comment on things to make my brand and create my brand as a sales execute sales leader out in the market so when my name appears on a post or my name is on a comment, there’s brand awareness with that. So I’m focused on doing that.
Fred Diamond: Rick, sales is hard, people don’t return your calls or your emails. Why have you continued in sales? What is it about sales as a career that has kept you going?
Rick Simmons: In one word, the challenge. I love it. I love the fact that I’m pushed out of my comfort zone every year, my quota’s always too high, territory’s always too small and I’ve got to figure out a way of how we’re going to get there and I’ve got to bring along my team to do that, so I got to get them believing and giving them hope that we can succeed and every year it’s different. Each year I love the fact that at the beginning of the year, if you can see your number, your quota for the whole year at the beginning of the year, you’ll never grow because you’re not challenging yourself, you’re not taking risks, you’re not pushing yourself to be out of the comfort zone.
It’s like the first day I walked onto the field at Bowie State University. I was pushed out of my comfort zone and because of that it made me a better person, made me a better player and taught me that I could do anything I want to do if I’m willing to pay the price for it and I feel that same way every year in sales, it’s that challenge.
Fred Diamond: Give us a final thought. What’s a final thought you can share to inspire our listeners today?
Rick Simmons: I firmly believe that all of us have great talents and abilities within us. It’s inside and we have to be able to find a way to pull that out, and to do that, you’ve got to make a commitment to be the best version of yourself that you can be in your professional and personal life. You have to not only inspire yourself to be the best, but you also should look to see how you can aspire others and do things for others that help them to reach their goals and dreams that maybe they couldn’t have ever achieved.
A good example is what I did with Anthony Robins, I gave him an opportunity because I believed in him and it inspired me to continue to do that and hopefully inspire Anthony to do similar things. I also believe that you’ve got to make mistakes to grow. You’ve got to take risks. There’s nothing wrong with failing, I failed at DEC when they sent me home and I was home in two hours later feeling like the earth had just crashed in on me but I didn’t give up. I didn’t quit, I got better.
So you’ve got to stay focused and most of all you have to believe in yourself. At the end of the day, you can be your worst enemy or the best person to get you to where you want to go if you believe, and if we all believe and we believe that we can make a difference, we can achieve great things, we can help others achieve great things. Then you’ll have a very successful sales career and a professional, personal career too.