EPISODE 524: Major Factors in Selling to the Federal Government with Blackwood’s Sohale Razmjou

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Sales Game Changers virtual learning session sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on May 27, 2022, featuring Sohale Razmjou, Vice President, Federal at Blackwood.]

Find Sohale on LinkedIn.

SOHALE’S TIP: “Stop what you’re doing and take a deep breath. Slow down a little bit. Sharpen the axe. What was that old quote? “If you give me six hours to chop a tree down, I’d spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.” That’s it, go sharpen your axe.”


Fred Diamond:  Welcome to another episode of The Sales Game Changers podcast. My guest is Sohale Razmjou. He’s the VP of Federal for Blackwood. They are a reseller of products to the federal government. Sohale, it’s great to see you. I’ve known you for a long time. You were at immix. You’ve been at Blackwood for what, close to six years now?

Sohale Razmjou: Yeah, just coming up on five and a half, almost six years.

Fred Diamond: For people who are frequent listeners of The Sales Game Changers podcast, I broadcast the shows from the DC region, Northern Virginia. We’ve had our fair share of some of the world’s top sales leaders to public sector markets, such as federal so let’s get right to it. We’re doing today’s interview in June of 2022. If you’re listening sometime in the future, thank you so much. How are things going right now in federal sales and give us some of your insights into what it looks like?

Sohale Razmjou: Fred, first of all, thanks for having me on. I’ve been a big fan of the show for quite a while. A lot of my friends have been on this before, I threw some names out before. Frank Dimina, Craig Miller, Chris Townsend, Eric and Patty Trexler and many others. Real excited to be on here.

We’re in the middle of it, we’re in the thick of buying season now. Anybody who’s listening has done any federal sales, you know September 30, that’s the big day. The run up to that date starts in this timeframe, and honestly about a month ago, to get everything in line for the end of the federal buying season of government fiscal calendar. Right now we’re in that process of going through the proof of concept, proof of values and requirements gathering, in preparation for that identification of the funding sources, all that super fun stuff.

When most folks are taking a little bit of time off for summer vacation, those of us on the federal get to use this time to get really stressed out about how things are lining up for end of September.

Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about the federal marketplace for a little bit. We’ve talked about this many times, like you mentioned, some of the guests, we’ve had a lot of the guests run public sector sales organizations, and the federal government is, for lack of a better term, Fortune One. It’s the largest market of every product for the most part on the planet. Hence why you have so many amazing organizations like Blackwood, and a lot of the companies that you talked about focus on satisfying their customer.  What are the top priorities right now of the federal customer? Is it impacted by the pandemic or not really and what are they focused on?

Sohale Razmjou: It is certainly impacted by the pandemic. It’s interesting, it’s actually a wild time in selling to the federal government. There’s a lot of external factors. It’s the focus and prioritization of initiatives. Anything from obviously our wheelhouse at Blackwood is cybersecurity and data analytics as cybersecurity is really the forefront of the approach that we take, the products we represent.

If you’ve done any research or sold anything to the government, you know that there are several mandates out there, especially with the turnover of the administration. Start throwing out a bunch of different memorandums, M-31-21, M-22-09. Everybody’s favorite buzzword, zero trust. From a mandate perspective, there are several mandates out there that are highly focused around securing the federal government through a zero trust architecture.

They’re very specific pillars that will help to achieve that architecture. Now let’s take a step back and say outside of the mandates provided by the federal government that are dictating the focus of product selection and product procurements. You have everything else going on in the world. You have COVID take place not long ago, it almost feels like an eternity ago.

SolarWinds happened, Microsoft breach happened. Several other high profile breaches took place. That shifted attention on certain elements. Because of COVID as a result to that, a far more significant remote workforce than previously existed in federal government.

Then now let’s even go more recently, the macro and global landscape from the Russia – Ukraine conflict or war, whatever you want to call that. One of the things that’s really interesting about that one is there’s just so much attention provided on that specific conflict, that it takes a little bit of the attention off of the other previous bad actors that you’d be looking at before, China and the others. That could just also start to add a lot more complexity into what the threat landscape would look like, or could look like, in a month from now, or six months from now, 12 months from now. That’s really driving a lot of the decisions and behaviors from the federal priorities.

Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about selling into that market then because of that. I remember I had a guest on, Gary Newgaard, who you may know, a couple years ago. He was a Pure Storage at the time. He described the federal marketplace as the NFL. He said, “It’s the most highly competitive marketplace.” You have, in some cases, some of the most savvy customers. For all the bureaucracy that happens at the government, the government is really focused on servicing the citizen. There’s so many challenging things that they need to face that the federal customer, forget about the bureaucracy, and a lot of ways is a very savvy, smart customer who is committed to the service, like we talked about. Talk about what it takes to be successful in selling into this marketplace.

Sohale Razmjou: That’s a big question, Fred. There’s a lot of layers to that one. Being successful, back to the comment around being the NFL. It’s a totally different mission than the selling to commercial sector. If you’re selling to a large Fortune 100 company, their procurement process and their buying habits is not a whole lot different than federal. I have played on both sides of the fence before. The driving factors behind them are wildly different. When you’re securing a commercial enterprise organization, if there’s a breach, there may be an impact to the stock price, or data might get leaked, or revenues could go down.

There’s a very real scenario where if a federal agency is breached, then lives are lost. That’s a totally different ballgame that you’re playing. It’s really cool to see our customers have that passion behind the decisions that they’re making. We were actually at RSA last week and meeting with one of our largest customers. That was what they talked about, “Look, we were responsible for vaccination. When something happens, people could die. This is not just a simple decision we have to make we take these things very, very seriously.” It piggybacks to your question, how to be successful? It’s understanding the mission.

It’s almost one of those cliché things is, know your customer, understand the mission, do your research. You should be doing that if you’re in sales. It is truly impactful when you understand the mission of your federal customer. A blanket federal as one entity is not appropriate. Every agency operates differently. Every civilian agency operates differently. Civilian and DOD operate differently even within the agencies, the various operational divisions, they have different missions against them. Doing that research, understanding what truly is impactful and what they’re trying to accomplish and what their mission is, and aligning your messaging, aligning your product set and what you’re taking to the market, that is going to be the differentiator between you and the guy next door.

Fred Diamond: Actually, federal it is lumped together. There’s a whole health side and there’s, things related to space and military, of course, and intelligence. There’s so many different ways. What are your customer conversations like right now? Has that changed recently?

I know you mentioned it’s the federal buying season. For people listening to today’s show, the vast majority of product acquisition happens in the July-August-September time frame because they need to spend the money in their budgets. I’m curious from a previous perspective. Is there more stress? Is there less time for relationships in general as you deal with your federal customers?

Sohale Razmjou: Very good question there, Fred. There is certainly more stress. There is no agency and honestly, this is not only federal specific, this is federal and commercial. No organization has all the headcount filled that they need to fill, especially when security is related. Because the stakes are so high with security, it adds just another layer of pressure and stress.

Doing more with less, doing more with limited funding, moving towards deadline. There’s still a scenario where, the remote workforce and getting things done in this environment is relatively new. I’m talking just the tactical elements, “Hey, we want to buy something we know we want to buy it, we’ve gone through the process, and now it’s time to make the purchase.” I used to be able to go down the hall and hand this package off to the next person for signatures or, walk down and say, “Hey, it’s waiting for you for signature, let’s go.”

That doesn’t exist anymore. Everybody’s working remotely, it’s a totally different ballgame there. Then what’s also more challenging is, and we’ve seen this getting worse and worse over the past several years but continuing resolution. When the budgets don’t get passed on time.

The longer a CR exists into a fiscal year, the shorter that time for execution takes place. If you got pushed to the end of March this year, you only have a handful of months to then really kick off the sales cycle, and you’ve compressed everything down. We’ve seen scenarios where procurements are desired, they want to buy something, but they don’t have the bandwidth to actually execute. They have to go through an exercise of prioritizing. “We have the ability to make 100 transactions, what are the 100 things we absolutely need to buy?” Then everything else is going to have to take a backseat and we’ll get to it if we get to it.

Fred Diamond:  Let’s talk about that for a second. One of the things we talk about a lot is how your customer has changed, because your customer’s customer has changed and your customer’s customer’s customer has changed because we’re all going through this. You hit on something a second ago I want to go back to, where you said that there’s less people involved because they don’t have as many people working anymore. Help us understand that. We talk about The Great Resignation and all those types of things. Are you seeing that at the federal customer where there’s just jobs left to be filled, because people aren’t going to take the jobs?

Sohale Razmjou: It’s not even necessarily people have left and that’s why the open headcount exist. It’s the need for additional engineering support is growing. The ability to recruit and attract talent and retain talent is just getting more and more difficult. One of the challenges that federal government has is there used to be a time where you would go work for the federal government, because it was a very stable, consistent world. Great benefits, and a long run.

We’ve seen with, just not going into politics, but over the political landscape in the past several years, several times where the budgets don’t get passed, and you see furloughs and shutdowns, and suddenly that stability goes away. Now, private sector is also caught up on benefits. Suddenly now you have equal benefits. The pay scale sometimes could be meaningful and different. That could attract people to either leave or not pursue federal employment.

I liken it to going to med school and becoming a doctor, you got to love what you’re doing, and truly believe in that mission. There’s no shortage of opportunities to be elsewhere. It’s candidly going to get a little bit worse too, when you have Amazon HQ opening up in our backyard of the federal government. They will be going after talent and high profile talent within the federal government. Trying to recruit and retain from there as well.

Fred Diamond: I ask this question to people who run public sector or federal. You’ve devoted your career to selling products to the federal government. What is it about the federal government as a customer that has motivated you to make it your career in selling and servicing that marketplace?

Sohale Razmjou: Fred, I actually stumbled into it accidentally. I was working with some of your old friends, Todd Bramblett and Larry Simpson back in a previous like-minded company called LeverPoint. They were my client when I was at MemoryBlue. Marc Gonyea, shout out to him and Chris Corcoran.

I know they’ve been guests as well. In the 2008 timeframe when I was selling at LeverPoint and selling to the commercial enterprise, then the market took a downturn. The federal government, a couple of my buddies were in it and said, ” Hey, come on over here we’re growing. Things are really exciting over here.” Got to be part of that organization and learn federal, just dumb luck fell into the federal marketplace. Really fell in love with it. It’s just different, every day is a different type of challenge.

Every procurement process, every agency operates differently. I’m severely ADHD driven, I use it as a superpower. I like to solve problems. A lot of your previous guests have said that as well in terms of solving problems, it’s a puzzle. It’s not lost on me that we’re doing something pretty cool. Going back to the mission, there’s a bigger purpose here when you’re working with the federal government. It’s not just, “We’re just trying to sell technology to sell technologies.” There’s something behind it, especially from a security perspective. I fell into it, just happenstance, dumb luck, fell in love with it. Once you get immersed in the federal marketplace, it’s really hard to leave.

The other piece of it that I love is it’s a small community, not only from a customer base, but the industry. We always joke that there’s 999 jobs in federal sales, and there’s 1000 people working on it. Every three years, you go to an event, it’s almost like a reunion, every year it’s a reunion. “Hey, where are you working now with? Let me see the business card.” You get to see different people popping around, and you get to work with the same people over and over again. There’s long term friendships and relationships they get built are really, really cool.

Fred Diamond: What are some of the things that would take for someone to be successful in federal sales? Let’s say somebody’s a junior salesperson, they’re, 23, 24, and they want to have a career in sales, what would be required of them to be successful selling into this marketplace?

Sohale Razmjou:  It’s not a whole lot different than selling and being successful on commercial. There are certain nuances to the federal practice that you’re just not going to have in commercial contract. Awareness of contracts and education on the types of vehicles, buying process, those types of things. You start to see a lot more channel involvement and distribution involvement in the federal market space compared to commercial.

Ultimately, it comes down to the same fundamentals as from a sales professional. Candidly, I moved back a little bit further from the sales techniques and tactics to just more of the human element. One of the things that exists in federal that is a little different than commercial is your customer is going to be your customer for a much longer period of time. When somebody is in an agency, they will tend to be that same agency or within the federal space for many, many, many years, entire career, 15, 20 plus years.

Whereas in a commercial enterprise, you may have that role of a CIO or someone that your customers may turn over every couple of years. Relationships are of utmost importance. I always fall back to playing the long game, operating with integrity, being fully transparent and honest. Sometimes even when it’s not to your benefit. Sometimes it’s your detriment. You sit with a customer and they say, “Here’s my problem, here’s what I’m trying to solve.” You come and say, “I can’t do that and this other product is probably better for you.” They’ll remember that. They’re going to be at that agency for many, many years. They’re going to know that, “Look, I’m not just being sold something,” nobody wants to be sold. “I have somebody that I can trust, he told me the truth.” Or, “She told me the truth.” The next time I have a question, or something to go back to them, they’ll come to you.

Fred Diamond:  One of our favorite guests was a woman named Tamara Greenspan, who has been in Oracle for 30 years. Tamara was the IES, Excellence in Sales, Women in Sales Leadership award winner in 2020. She’s been in Oracle for 30 years. She’s talked about some of the relationships that she’s had with customers, because the customer is in the same role or same general role maybe with a couple promotions over that time.

Talk about what it means to have relationships with a customer in the public sector space. You can’t take a government customer to the golf course for the most part. You can’t just say, “Let’s go for dinner at Morton’s,” like you might be able to do in public sector or something on those lines. First of all, you mentioned that relationships are important because the customer will be in the same role probably.

If you’re working for the government, one thing that’s gotten a little bit dicey here, but you’re probably going to have that job security, especially at a certain level. You just talked about how challenging it is right now to fill certain roles. Talk about what it means to have a relationship with a federal customer. How have you devoted your time and attention to that?

Sohale Razmjou:  Fred, if you’ve spoken to me from more than five minutes you’ll know that my entire outlook on just professional and personal life is all about relationships. I don’t know if it’s a lost art, but I think more emphasis could be placed on this just in general from a training perspective. You got to care about the people you work with, work for, work around. This isn’t just your customers. It’s the people that’s to the left and right of you in your office within different divisions your organization. It could be your partners that you work with, your manufactures you work with, we’re all people.

We’re all doing a very, very difficult thing. This is not an easy job. I always fall back to how can you help? I’m more of a servant leader than anything else. We were just at our meeting, I’ll be the first one to get up and start filling people’s water bottles and filling people’s cups up with coffee. Ultimately, it comes down to, do I trust the person I’m working with? Do they have my best intentions in mind? If I do, and I know that I can rely on them, and there is truly an honest relationship there, they care more about me than they do about the deal, that’s a friendship that’s going to start to blossom over time.

To your point earlier, those will last an entire career and lifetime. That’s one of the things that again, forget my customer base on this one, from people I’ve worked with, worked for, had been on my teams before, there are relationships, I will consistently reach out on birthdays, or on a random day, if I just think of someone I’ll shoot them a text saying, “Hey man, thinking of you, haven’t talked to in a long, long time. Hopefully, everything’s going well.”

Fred Diamond:  We talked about a lot of the challenges that are happening in the marketplace. Talk a little bit about how you’re coaching your people right now. Of course, it’s uniquely the federal buying season, so there’s things like that. Obviously, the whole world has been facing challenges the last couple years. Tell us how you’re coaching your junior people and how are you coaching your senior people as well.

Sohale Razmjou: I’m glad you differentiated between, well forget junior and senior, but just different styles and different personality types and different sales, professional types. Everybody gets a little different style of coaching. Ultimately, we’re a unique spot Fred, because we’re reseller. We’re in that middle lane there.

I always tell my team, “Play the long game, protect your own individual brand.” Anybody who’s wearing the Blackwood brand across their chest, we have an expectation that whether you’re an intern or the president of the company, you’re going to operate with a consistent level of integrity and professionalism. The thing about being a reseller is these relationships, these are going to be our customers for many, many, many, years, some of our customers are 15 years plus. We’ve been around since 77.

We have very long standing customers that we’ve sold multiple technologies and products into. Where the reps and the manufacturers have turned over several times over. I could sell something to a customer, if they have a bad experience, they’re not going to want to work with me anymore.  I’m sold out of that.  If I’m at a manufacturer, as long as I got that deal, and I left I went to another product, another company, I can keep selling and move on. I really do stress and urge my team to always play your game.

There’s another element is you’re going to work hard, my expectation is you’re going to give eight hours a day to Blackwood, you’re going to work. You’re going to leave it all on the field. When you’re done with those eight hours, shut it down. I don’t want to hear from you, I don’t want to be the one that bothers you after hours. If I could call you at 5:30, the first thing I’m going to say is an apology for calling you after hours.

I want you to shut it down, go do what fills your cup, go recharge, be with your family, whatever hobbies you have. There needs to be an element of this, because this is a very difficult industry where if you’re not coming back recharged, you’re not going to be the best version of yourself and that is going to carry over into your happiness in this role.

Fred Diamond:  Before I ask you for your final action step, follow up to a question I’ve asked here before is would you recommend that sales professionals move into the selling into the federal space? We talked about your mission and the value you’ve seen in the marketplace. If someone came to you and said, “Sohale, I really want to grow, should I focus on federal, should I move to California and focus on entertainment or move to New York and focus on the financial marketplace?” If you think about it, a lot of the people that you alluded to before, they’ve committed their careers to serving this market.

Some of them had missions, maybe their father was in the military, or they just really believed in the service to the citizen or  selling to the health agencies like NIH, or whatever it might be because they were passionate about national health care or things related to that. That is one of the great things about selling to the public sector is like you said in the very beginning, that they’re all mission driven. But would you recommend to people? We talked about how challenging of a marketplace it is.

There’s things you need to know. Most of the salespeople I’ve met over the years that sell and are successful into federal, you got to have some serious brain power. There’s a lot of things you need to know. You need to know the whole sales process, but you need to know how to sell to the government. A lot of people are educated in this marketplace. It’s not just like, “Hey, take a guy on the golf course and sign the deal.” You got to plot it out, you got to think it through, you got to understand the competition, you got to understand the mission. It ain’t a marketplace for people who don’t really focus on that as a career. Would you recommend that people go into federal if they’ve never considered it before?

Sohale Razmjou:  Fred, I would first ask if they really want to be in sales. That’s a whole another element on its own. If you made the decision that, “Yes, I’m gung ho, I’m all in for sales,” we can have a discussion about whether federal or commercial is the right move for you.

Look, I love it. It’s been nothing but goodness for me being in federal. I know that for some folks, if you’re looking to move fast, and do fast transactions, this is not the industry for you. It is like moving an aircraft carrier, not a speedboat for sure. It’s getting more and more that way, especially with the way the markets move in terms of these enterprise agreements for government mandates. Absolutely, I would never dissuade somebody from coming over to an industry that has been so fruitful for me and the people that I surround myself with.

It’s been nothing but fantastic. It is certainly a different element, though. Exactly like you said, there are a lot of different regulations, there’s a lot of moving parts. Instead of a 100-piece puzzle, it’s a 1000-piece puzzle, and they’re all the same exact color. You got to figure out where they go and how to navigate them and all that fun stuff.

Yes, I’d say give it a shot, but be prepared to invest a longer term to really see the fruits of your labor. It is not a scenario where you can go in and say, “Alright, here’s my territory, it’s DHS.” And then overnight, you’re going to have the relationships and the pipeline and the revenue coming in. If you’re going to go federal, you sign up for at least a three-to-five-year window to see that. If you do and you’re successful in that three to five years, you will be successful for 15 to 20 years in federal. Those three to five could be challenging.

Fred Diamond: I want to thank Sohale Razmjou, VP of Federal at Blackwood. Sohale you’ve given us so many great ideas, so many great thoughts here. First of all, I want to acknowledge you for your success and for the service that you’ve brought not just to your team, but to your customers over the years. Good luck for you and thank you for doing that.

That is one of the great things about federal marketplaces. Everybody who works in the marketplace is serving the citizen. Either keeping us safe, keeping us healthy, keeping us protected. I want to acknowledge you for the great service you’ve brought to that marketplace. Give us an action step. You’ve given us so many great ideas. We like to end every Sales Game Changers podcast episode with one specific action step that people should take right now after listening to today’s podcast.

Sohale Razmjou:  One specific action, it’s not going to be salesy. Stop what you’re doing and take a deep breath. Slow down a little bit. Sharpen the axe. What was that old Abraham Lincoln quote? “If you give me six hours to chop a tree down, I’d spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.” That’s it, go sharpen your axe.

The piggyback on that is if you haven’t identified why you’re doing this, and this could be anything. Whatever your this is, your in sales or anything. If you haven’t identified why you’re doing it, identify it, remind yourself why you’re doing it because you don’t burn out because of what you’re doing. You burn out because you forget why you’re doing it. If you don’t have a defined why, it makes it a lot harder. For me, it’s my family. It’s my kids, my wife. When I take a pause and think about them, it reminds me when there’s times when this is really stressful, this is really hard. That is the kind of driving force that pulls me out of that real real quick and gives me that gratitude of the really cool industry we’re in and the fun things we get to do.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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