EPISODE 221: Dun & Bradstreet Sales Exec Sally Block is Constantly Learning and It’s Helping Her Lead Through the COVID-19 Pandemic

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EDITOR’S NOTE: We conducted this interview in January 2020. Since the show was released during the COVID-19 pandemic, we asked Sally what her advice is for sales professionals during the pandemic. She offered the following:

  • Take care of yourself and those that are important to you – that includes your customers. What can we deliver now to help during the pandemic? Dun & Bradstreet has offered free access to specific data and analytics to assist with the pandemic response and economic recovery.
  • Data and analytics for government are more important now than ever, the opportunity is in uncovering how we are relevant in new ways. Reach out, listen, understand the shifting priorities of your customers.
  • Invest in yourself- take time to read/listen to that book you’ve been staring at (mine is John Sculley’s Moonshot), take that online course to sharpen your skills, learn something new that will benefit you and your customers.

EPISODE 221: Dun & Bradstreet Sales Exec Sally Block is Constantly Learning and It’s Helping Her Lead Through the COVID-19 Pandemic

SALLY’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Continue to be a learner but I also want to say that as you advance your career, take time to reach back. Share your knowledge and skills with somebody who’s new to the role. We all came to our success through the help of others. Remember, you’ve got to give back.”

Sally Block is a VP Sales, Dun & Bradstreet Government Solutions.

Prior to coming to Dun & Bradstreet, she held sales leadership positions at CCH Wolters Kluwer and Bloomberg BNA.

Sally can be found on LinkedIn here.

Fred Diamond: Your company, Dun and Bradstreet, has been around for what, 178 years now?

Sally Block: Correct.

Fred Diamond: I’m interested in seeing how it’s transformed and how it still stays vital. Thanks for being on the show, why don’t you tell us a little more about you that we need to know?

Sally Block: First, Fred, thank you for this opportunity. I am honored to provide any insights that I can to sales professionals around the world, I really appreciate it. Second, I am the luckiest person in the world. I get to do what I enjoy every day and right now I get to do it surrounded by a smart professional team that are very passionate about what they do. Now, I also get to do it with a company that’s focused on improving public sector performance through data and insight.

Fred Diamond: Why don’t you summarize for us? Because a lot of people have probably heard of Dun & Bradstreet, D&B, again I mentioned in the intro the company’s been around for 178 years. Tell us in some more words, what exactly does the company do? Who do you sell to, what do they use your products and services for?

Sally Block: Dun & Bradstreet, we are the global leader in commercial data and analytics. We are the original collector and curator of the world’s largest corporate information data set with over 340 million businesses and 220 countries. For 178, you mentioned, companies of every size and now 90% of US federal agencies rely on Dun & Bradstreet to accelerate their performance, manage their risk and also increase their efficiencies.

Fred Diamond: A lot of people like me to ask who you physically sell to. Again, you’re a VP of Sales, who is the customer of D&B? What type of people do you sell to?

Sally Block: We sell to everyone from Chief Information Officers to risk managers to programs that are developed throughout the federal agencies. I told you that I’m on my way to Kentucky next week because we work very closely with state workforce developments helping them to understand the business landscape and environment so they can attract new employers and help with folks that are looking for jobs within their states.

Fred Diamond: A lot of people who listen to the Sales Game Changers podcast around the globe and some people have begun to ask me, “What exactly does public sector mean?” Tell us again, when you say public sector, what markets does that entail?

Sally Block: That’s our federal government, all of the agencies within our federal government, and our state and local governments. We deal with all of the agencies from the governor’s office down through the employment commissions, the labor commissions as well as the security commissions, law enforcement included. Then on a global scale very similarly we deal with a very large footprint in Ottawa, we have a very large footprint in London where we work, again, with global government agencies.

Fred Diamond: What excites you about what you do? Tell us what really gets you juiced about what D&B is bringing to the market.

Sally Block: What’s really exciting about what we do is our involvement in the mission. We have a direct impact on our ability to help government agencies achieve their mission. Let me give you an example. Most people don’t realize that when you’ve set foot on a commercial airliner that a good portion of what’s being carried on that commercial airliner is cargo that’s being shipped by businesses. That’s regulated by TSA, so it’s prudent for TSA to understand, since there are passengers on that plane, what those businesses are that are shipping in the belly of that plane. TSA established a known shipper program.

There are two million known shippers now, so when a company says, “I want to ship something on a commercial airline” they are vetted and verified by Dun & Bradstreet. We append that information, we make sure that company is who they say they are, we have risk information, we have beneficial ownership. Who are they linked to? It helps TSA make a determination about whether or not that shipper gets to ship on a commercial airline. When you ask me about what’s exciting about what we do, it’s being part of that mission. We help TSA keep the air safe for you to fly.

Fred Diamond: Let me ask you a quick question. We’ve interviewed a whole bunch of people who are VP’s of Sales with public sector groups within large companies and your answer was right on track with most of them. It’s about the mission of the agencies that they serve. Where does that come from for you? Was your family a military family or did you just sense the need overtime? I’m just curious how that starts with you.

Sally Block: My family is very tied to public sector and to service. My father was a postmaster and my mother was an educator and it became something that was really core to what we were raised to do, and it’s about giving back, it’s about being involved in something that’s bigger than yourself.

Fred Diamond: Tell us about the beginning of your career. How did you first move into sales as a career?

Sally Block: I just mentioned that my mother was an educator and I come from a family of educators so I followed that path. I had a degree in education and speech pathology. After three years, I realized that I was not cut out for this and it was a tough pill to swallow. I went to work for a family friend who had a series of boutiques in Virginia, and I started a personalized shopping service. It was great, it was an early innovator in the area. One of my customers happened to be a Senior VP for Donnelly Directory, she’s one of the first people that saw in me something that I didn’t see myself and she convinced me to come to work for her. She took a special interest in training me and coaching me, and after a while I realized, “Wait, I am cut out for this” and I also realized, Fred, that it was not too far afield from education. Think about it: the preparation that a teacher has to go through to “sell”, if you would, a new concept to a student is not unlike the preparation that we go through to make sure that we can communicate new ideas, new thoughts to our customers.

Fred Diamond: I have a question for you. Donnelly, would that be the yellow pages? We’ve interviewed a number of people on the Sales Game Changers podcast who also started that route as well and for the Sales Game Changers listening around the globe, that’s sales. Tell us what that was like, take us back to some of your first few months or years as a selling professional selling advertisements for the yellow pages.

Sally Block: The best part about that when you start in new is you don’t know what you don’t know, so there’s no fear. You’re told, “Here’s my list of people” and you are knocking on doors and having conversations. As I said, my first mentor was the one that really taught me to make sure that, “You know what? You’re going to get a lot of rejection. Accept that upfront and move forward” but it was a very wonderful selling track because Donnelly was part of the directory company that had a very specified sales process. Once you learn, Fred, a sales process, certainly it matures over time and you adapt it to what you’re selling but early on in your career when that’s deeply ingrained in you, it’s a very special gift.

Fred Diamond: What were some of those lessons you learned, what were some of the parts of the process that you have gone about and have stuck with you?

Sally Block: They key lessons, two things: #1, be a constant learner, there’s no question about that and the second one is be an attentive listener. My first mentor taught me that you’ve got to evaluate every interaction with a customer. When you’re done, you walk out the door and there’s two questions you ask yourself: one, “What did I learn?” and two, “What did I need to know?” When you’re asking yourself those two questions, I learn something and here’s what I need to know, that gives you confidence and the biggest gift you can give any salesperson is confidence.

Fred Diamond: I have a question for you. We’ve had so many great Sales Game Changers on the show who have said that they are great listeners and I always ask the follow up question, “Give us something you do, give us a bit of advice for the people listening around the globe to help them become a better listener.” What’s a technique, a trick, a strategy that you do to become a better listener?

Sally Block: I remember I was very excited to get and secure an appointment with Michael Peacock, he was the president of Peacock Buick and I was selling yellow pages. I walked into his office and I’m halfway through my pitch, Fred, when he reaches across the table and he slams on the desk and he says, “Young lady, I said yes five minutes ago and you didn’t hear me because you’re still talking.” He said, “I want you to remember, you’ve got to stop and ask yourself, ‘why am I still talking?'” And we had a great laugh about it and for years I would stop by and have a cup of coffee with Michael Peacock and catch him up on my career, and to this day I still find myself continuing to practice that, “Why am I talking? What’s happening right now and why is there a reason for me to be talking right now?”

Fred Diamond: That is so powerful for two reasons. One is that the customer gave you the advice.

Sally Block: He was a good coach.

Fred Diamond: He was a good coach as a customer. A lot of the great stories that come out of the Sales Game Changers podcast is when the customer gives advice that has stuck with the sales leader that we’re talking to. The second one was that it was a very valuable lesson, we hear that so many times, losing the deal after it’s closed. [Laughs] I wish I could think of one of the examples where then the sale was made and then the sales rep said something like, “Well, of course it won’t work in your environment” so good for you, Michael Peacock?

Sally Block: Michael Peacock.

Fred Diamond: Good for you, and good for you for hustling. Selling yellow pages advertising, that’s pure sales. We’ve had some Sales Game Changers who’ve sold copiers and fax machines back in the day, but the people who told me that they’ve sold yellow pages or advertising back then, good for you. Again, we’re talking to Sally Block, she’s the VP Sales, Dun & Bradstreet Government Solutions. Sally, what are you an expert in? Tell us a little more about your area of brilliance.

Sally Block: I’ve spent over 20 years in information data and analytics and my expertise is still a work in progress, Fred. One of my mentors who impacted me early on, I keep this quote in my head because what he told me was, “Success is more of an issue of who you are than what you know. While knowledge is necessary, sustained success comes to the person who’s driven by strong values and ethics.” The brilliance, if you would, comes from just that: integrity, ethics, drive and the reflection of the team around me. I’m driven by this team, I’m driven to be my best every day for this team to be fair, to be compassionate, to be purposeful and really to be a multiplier.

That’s the skill that I bring into this team and when you’re a multiplier, you’re encouraging collaboration, you’re raising the bar, being a multiplier also consists of investing time individually to my team members. When they sit down and know that they’re getting ready to be coached by me, they know that one of the first things that I’m going to ask them is, “Why are you doing what you’re doing? What inspires you to do it? What skills do you have that we’re not utilizing right now? Where are you going to add the greatest value?” That helps bring out the brilliance of the team, so if you ask me, my brilliance is the reflection of the team that’s around me.

Fred Diamond: I have a question. I’ve actually never asked this question before on the Sales Game Changers podcast. What is it about sales leadership that you love so much? I can get your passion here, but what is it about leadership that really drives you and that really gets you up in the morning, that really excites you?

Sally Block: It’s the educator in me, it’s the need to be that multiplier, it’s the tie back to why I’m in public sector. You’re involved in a mission, you’re involved in something bigger than yourself. When you are a sales leader, you have a direct responsibility for advancing the careers of the people that you work with, for bringing them with you. I was fortunate throughout my career and definitely at BNA to have people there that brought me and taught me and coached me, and that stays with you for a long time. That’s a responsibility, if you’re going to step into sales leadership, it’s something that you’re going to have to take with you.

Fred Diamond: Speaking about that, why don’t you tell us about an impactful sales mentor and how they impacted your career?

Sally Block: If you’re blessed to have a mentor, you’re really lucky. I’ve been happy to have many, but early on in my career there was a leader and he was the one that actually saw in me, for the first time, my ability to lead. He told me I had traits, I had potential, he taught me by example – trust me, he gave me a lot of lectures. I would walk through walls for that guy and I continue to honor his memory in two ways: one, to every day try to be the person that he thought I could be and two, to make sure that I’m devoting time to coaching emerging leaders.

Fred Diamond: We get that through some of your answers before. The great sales leaders that we interview on the podcast really think about their people and how they can take their people to the next level, that’s very powerful. Do you enjoy the mentoring as well? Do you consider yourself to be a mentor to the people on your team as well?

Sally Block: I do, I encourage and I warn at the same time, “Should you want to be mentored, it may be the hardest thing you’ve ever done because there’s a lot of work that goes into it and if you’re willing to put in the work, I’m willing to mentor.”

Fred Diamond: I want to ask you another question about that. Help prepare our listeners, we have Sales Game Changers around the world listening, you just said it’s going to be hard. Again, we’re talking to Sally Block, VP Sales, Dun & Bradstreet Government Solutions. Give them one or two bits of advice on how they can best be mentored, if they want to be mentored.

Sally Block: #1, if you want to be mentored in this world, you have to be open to failure, you have to be open to learning and you’ve got to be willing to take some risk in your career. If you want to ask me about lessons that I’ve learned across my career to this point, Fred, I’ve got to say many of them were learned through failure and there’s no easy path in sales. We’ve selected this profession and those of us that select it know that there’s not an easy path, but if you want to be mentored you’ve got to be willing to commit the time to learning and to vote yourself to this profession.

Fred Diamond: Speaking about the tough path, why don’t you tell us what the two biggest challenges are that you face as a sales leader?

Sally Block: Hands-down, talent acquisition and talent retention, no question. We’re in a competitive market, attracting talent is always going to be a challenge. The interesting thing that’s involved, however is money is no longer the driving factor and I will tell anybody who I speak with, “Don’t chase the money.” You have to be in a sales environment that gives you a strong confidence in the company, in the products and services that they offer, an environment where you can continue to learn and most importantly, a culture that you can adapt to. Culture is a key driver for us to attract talent.

As you look around this office, you’ll see our corporate objectives. They start with honoring the client and they end with lead developing and supporting our people, it’s a strong part of our culture and that’s one of the drivers that we use to attract top talent. On the retention side of it, I work on a daily basis to continue to recruit my current team members. My mentor Joe told me after my first year of working with him, he walked in the office and he said, “Sally, I want you to go interview for a job outside the company.” I was stunned, I was his top rep. What he said to me was this, “One of two things are going to happen: you’re going to find a better job or you’re going to realize that the job you have is the best one for you right now and you’re going to come back to me with a renewed sense of purpose and commitment.”

For years I followed his advice and for years, I came back to that role with that renewed sense of purpose and commitment. I’ve translated that now to my team so that I want them to know on a daily basis that they’re in the right place for them.

Fred Diamond: I’ll ask you one question here. I’ll give you an opportunity, again we’re interviewing here today at the offices of Dun & Bradstreet in Reston, Virginia. Why would somebody want to come work at Dun & Bradstreet in sales in the public sector side?

Sally Block: In public sector sales in Dun & Bradstreet again, based in mission, you have to be very passionate about it. The best thing right now is that we are a data and analytics company. Data and analytics, articles across the board, Forbes most recently, it is the new oil, we are the new gas, it is the place where it is the most exciting now application within the public sector. It’s not about what data you have, it’s about how you draw insights from that. We’ve been doing this for 178 years, we know how to manage, curate and get insights out of data and that’s exciting, because every day there’s a different mission, there’s a different problem, I talk to you about TSA. We also work very closely with the Food and Drug Administration, 25 cents on every dollar that comes into this US is regulated by FDA, it’s also vetted by Dun & Bradstreet, it’s part of that mission. You have an opportunity to be innovative, you’ve got an opportunity to work in a field of data and analytics which really is driving a lot of our economy right now and we’ve got innovation and fun.

Fred Diamond: Before we take a short break and listen to one of our sponsors, again you’ve worked for some great places, you’ve had some great experiences, you’ve had some great mentors along the way. Why don’t you tell us about the #1 specific sales success or win from your career you’re most proud of?

Sally Block: You know that’s a tough question, right?

Fred Diamond: I do, but you’re doing a great job with every question so far.

Sally Block: The one I learned the most from actually involved the Department of Labor. It was a difficult situation that I uncovered, there were several senior leaders at Department of Labor and my general counsel at the time were involved. The success came from turning what was an impossible situation on the outside to something that really, in the end benefited not only the agency but the company. The reason that I say that was my biggest success is – you’ll hear me say it many times – it’s what I learned from that. What I learned was impossible situations aren’t impossible, what I learned was you have to involve key influencers early in the process and what I learned was you have to be able to understand that at every situation, there is an opportunity.

Fred Diamond: I love that, impossible situations aren’t impossible. Before we take a short break and listen to one of our sponsors, did you ever question being in sales? Again, you went the educator route, your mom was an educator and then somebody who works for Donnelly saw something in you and took you into her company and moved you into sales. Of course, you’ve had a great career since then but Sally Block, did you every say to yourself, “You know what? It’s too hard, it’s really just not for me”?

Sally Block: I did. It goes back to ‘this was not what I was trained to do’. So much of sales is the confidence, I was trained to be an educator. When you turn that in your mindset and say, “Wait a minute, isn’t sales being an educator? Isn’t it about communication? Isn’t it about helping your clients understand what you have that is available to offer?” When I got to that point, there was no turning back.

Fred Diamond: I’m just curious. Before we take a short break, people who knew you when you were growing up on the education path and now they see you leading public sector with Dun & Bradstreet, a well-known brand, 178 years, are they amazed or are people like, “I knew you were the right person for this type of a career” in retrospect?

Sally Block: You may have talked to my mother.

Fred Diamond: [Laughs]

Sally Block: Yes, it’s odd, it was one of those things where there was this opportunity and it comes down to where you feel passion and where you feel trait wherein I did not have the passion at the time for the classroom. This is where I found my passion so what I say to salespeople is, “It goes back to your why, what’s your passion?”

[Sponsor break]

Fred Diamond: Sally, you’ve given us a lot of great tips. What’s the most important thing you want to get across to the selling professionals listening around the globe to help them take their careers to the next level?

Sally Block: You have to invest the time in learning, you’ve got to do the work, the fundamentals of the job are truly important, you have to research what your customer needs, where their initiatives are leading. The best part about selling to the public sector, however is that mission issues and priorities are easily accessible. The most important gift you can give yourself is that knowledge, the knowledge comes in a lot of different forms. You’ve got to ask yourself, again before you get to the presentation – I’ve said it multiple times – what do I know, what do I need to know and thirdly, where do I find the answer?

Our sales have evolved to the point where the effort that you take in knowing what your customer’s world is you’ve got to be prepared to know it better than they know themselves. Your customers many times are looking for what they should be thinking about and they’re looking to you as a sales professional to tell them that. If you’re early in your career, my advice to you is lean on those that are tenured in your environment, they’ll give you some of those insights as you’re gathering your own knowledge.

Fred Diamond: I have a quick question for you. Again, you come from the educators space, your mother was an educator. You’ve said a number of times, Sally, “You need to be a constant learner.” I’m just curious, what are you learning, what are you trying to learn right now? What’s one of the top one or two things that you’re trying to get better educated on?

Sally Block: The world of data and analytics is changing every day so you want to talk about AI, you want to talk about machine learning, it is not what we were talking about 10 years ago. It is the environment that we’re in, I utilize the people that are around me, our data scientists, our staff, I reach out to on a regular basis, “Tell me more.” You know if I ask you if you’ve got five minutes it’s not going to be five minutes, there are places that I continue to try to hone my skills around data and analytics because that’s going to make me a better asset to my customer.

Fred Diamond: Tell us about one of your selling habits that has led to your continued success.

Sally Block: First and foremost to be prepared. The last 20 minutes you’ve heard me say it and you’ve heard me say it over and over again, it’s important to be prepared for the interaction that you’re going to have with your customer, you have to make sure you’re bringing something to this party. Second of all, you’ve got to be present. There was a United Airlines commercial years ago, a sales leader calls everybody in and he starts handing out plane tickets and he says, “We have to get off email, to get off the phone, to get off text, we have to go see our customers.” There is nothing that can take the place of a face to face interaction, but even then what I encourage you in the habit is that when you’re in that face to face reaction, you have to be present. The only person in that room is you and the customer that you have. Third thing, you have to take time to celebrate victories. Whatever form of reward you take to celebrate, celebrate them. This job is hard, this profession is hard, when you take the time to celebrate those victories and the small ones and the success, you’re also going to find out that it just might be contagious.

Fred Diamond: Curiously, how do you celebrate? What’s something you do? Give us an example of what that looks like.

Sally Block: Everybody knows when I’ve had a big success, you’ll hear the elevation in my voice, I’ll take team members out to lunch, I have a list of things that I want to reward myself with for jobs well done. There is a celebration that occurs at the end of every selling period, at the end of every quarter, good, bad or indifferent. Why? Because I’m celebrating what I learned, I’m celebrating what I need to know more about.

Fred Diamond: I think I have a pretty good idea what the title of today’s podcast is going to be.

Sally Block: Yes.

Fred Diamond: Definitely the word ‘learning’ should be in there somewhere. Sally, tell us about a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success.

Sally Block: We are aligning our government solutions team to sell to the way our customer buys. Our public sector client has really specific needs that differ from how we’re aligned on the commercial side of Dun & Bradstreet. We’ve undertaken the initiative to ensure that we have the mechanisms, the services, the entry points in places that honor how our customer wants to interact with us.

Secondly, we’re creating an environment for continuous learning, a key component of developing and maintaining our culture is providing an opportunity for our team members to expand their skills and their knowledge. We’ve initiate morning dialogues, lunch and learns, cross functional interactions, we’ve made outside course work available to our team members, they’re multiple avenues of learning.

Fred Diamond: Before I ask you for your final thought, I want to thank you for being on today’s Sales Game Changers podcast. You’ve given us so many great things to think about, I keep going back to that interaction you had with Michael Peacock and he said, “Young lady, stop selling. Five minutes ago I gave you the opportunity to close” and that was a very valuable lesson. Along the way, sales is hard, people don’t return your calls or your emails. One of my past guests who also is a VP of Sales in the public sector space said public sector selling is the NFL of sales. Every big company is in there, every startup, there’s rules, there’s regulations, there’s challenges with the customer, there’s actually laws on how they need to purchase you need to be aware of but it’s also one of the most satisfying markets in the world for some of the reasons you mentioned, the mission, if you will. Why have you continued? What is it about sales as a career that has kept you going?

Sally Block: Tying yourself to a greater purpose is all about what keeps me focused. I may not always be able to control the outcome but Fred, what I can control is my process and my mindset. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve got a chance every day to be innovative, to have an impact and to learn something new. I am a big fan of college basketball and I’ve gotten through this entire interview without a single reference to sports but this is Jimmy V week and Jimmy Valvano said in his ESPY speech, “There are three things that you have to do every day. Number one, laugh. Number two, think, spend some time in deep thought and number three, have your emotions move you to tears.” I’m going to have to say, there’s no other profession in the world than sales that allows me to do that every day and that’s a good day.

Fred Diamond: I know you went to UVA for grad school, where did you go for undergrad?

Sally Block: Mary Washington.

Fred Diamond: Mary Washington, good for you, you kept it in state. Sally Block, thank you so much for being a great guest on the Sales Game Changers podcast, we learned so much from you today. Why don’t you wrap it up? Give us a final thought to inspire our listeners around the globe.

Sally Block: I would say you’ve got to continue to be a learner but I also want to say that as you advance your career, take time to reach back. Share your knowledge and skills with somebody who’s new to the role. We all came to our success through the help of others. Remember, you’ve got to give back.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo
Produced by Rosario Suarez

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