EPISODE 654: Significant Sales Success Strategies from Alteryx Public Sector Head Steve Harris

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Today’s show featured an interview with Steve Harris, President Alteryx Public Sector.

Find Steve on LinkedIn.

STEVE’S ADVICE:  “People need to be responsible for their own development. That means that they need to hold their manager accountable, their second level manager accountable. They need to gain a baseline for where am I from a talent and development perspective. What are the things that you believe I do well and what are the things that you can help me understand that I could do better? Performance, we’re here to deliver on the numbers that we’re given. We’re here to create results. How do I know the time that I’m spending is actually going to be accretive to those outcomes? Do I have a strong strategy? Do I know how to build ecosystem and relationships across the industry around my client? How do I know that I’m building good, solid pipeline? How do I personally pressure test that? How am I always thinking ahead to my plan to close?”


Fred Diamond: I’m excited to talk to Steve. Steve’s the president of Alteryx Public Sector. Steve, Alteryx makes it easy for government organizations of all sizes to streamline and unify analytics processes, including prep, blend, and advanced analytics. Tell us what that means and let’s get going here.

Steve Harris: Thanks, Fred. I’m really glad to be here today. Alteryx is a platform, and everything that you said, we do that, and we do it through allowing data integration to be easy. We’re a data connections first platform. We make it easy to bring essentially just the data that represents the query into one place, powerful, super easy to use tools to clean that data up, and then 300 no-code icons that you’re able to transform that data with. We also represent an integral part of the hyperautomation space, because while you’re producing these workflows that are predictive, prescriptive, diagnostic, or reporting analytics, you’re also automating the process that leads to that outcome. Super powerful platform and a lot of capability in a single product.

Fred Diamond: I’m excited to talk to you about what you’re doing right now in public sector, but give us a little bit of a peek into your career. How did you get to this point?

Steve Harris: I’ve had a wonderful career. I’m almost 30 years in focusing on public sector. I’m maybe a little unique in that I’ve worked in every vertical extensively, from K through 12 all the way through the defense industrial base, and everything in between. Through staying very dedicated to that set of missions, my domain expertise has always grown year over year. I love the mission more than what I’m selling, no matter where I’ve been. It’s that passion for outcomes and support of citizen services, support of the defense industry and the soldier that has led me to the passion to just keep growing and roll.

Started at Dell, culminated there with $13 billion of responsibility across the public sector. Had the title of president of Dell Federal Systems. I then went to Ellucian, which is the largest EdTech serving higher education globally, ERP and CRM. That was an outstanding experience as well. It got me away from the infrastructure in the data center and into what is really the application space. While I was there, Fred, it became incredibly apparent to me that access to data and data analytics, it’s top of the mind for everybody. It is the next frontier and it’s where we’re going to create a lot of value over the next 5 to 10 years.

Fred Diamond: Again, you run public sector for Alteryx. Tell us a little bit about what your customer’s asking for from what you guys serve. What are some of the use cases maybe, what are the conversations like about what you offer the various public sector organizations like?

Steve Harris: Well, with most of these clients, and each vertical is a little bit different, first and foremost, there are data challenges, just in terms of getting to the data. We have a very powerful ETL and it makes it really easy to pull that data together. That’s the first challenge. A lot of customers are trying to figure out, do I embark on a huge data strategy project? Do I have to do all of that in advance of beginning to deliver data to decisions? Our answer to that is, no, you don’t have to wait. Not only can we be a migration tool to help you with your future data project. We can get just the data that you need from wherever it is, any kind of data right now, and start producing much better reporting for blended data. Then allow people to ask all the questions of what if and why, and how am I going to plan for what happens next? That’s immediate value to the mission.

Fred Diamond: I’m kind of curious here. There’s a lot of discussions we’ve had on the Sales Game Changers Podcast and in the sales industry, if you will, about how it’s challenging to get value across to customers because they have access to the web and social media and all those things. Talk a little bit, Steve, about the value that your organization and that you are imploring upon your sales team to help customers understand the things that they can do with their data, and better ways to go about analyzing it and bringing it together, that Alteryx provides.

Steve Harris: Well, I think we should think about it along the lines of producers and consumers. Now, we are an exceptionally powerful and easy to use platform. We like to say that we democratize the ability to deliver on analytics. Somebody who’s capable with a spreadsheet, by the way, the spreadsheet is the number one analytics tool in the world by far. Many orders of magnitude. Somebody who’s able to conduct a VLOOKUP with a spreadsheet is able to become very productive on our platform in the same day. With a little practice and development, somebody can actually elevate to the status of citizen data scientists using our AI powered analytics platform. That’s a very powerful workforce transformation opportunity.

Alteryx also makes it very easy to automate access under the auspices of existing data governance to all of the different analytics artifacts that are being created. Not only to make it easy to automate the delivery of these analytics, we also have powerful generative AI where you can apply essentially our products to what is a very elaborate workflow, but then receive a 100% accurate description of all the data transformations in natural language. You can even have that loaded into a memo or into a PowerPoint and set the tone for how you would like that communication to occur. Whether you’re a consumer or a producer of analytics, we make it really, really easy to engage with this powerful platform. No data science required.

Fred Diamond: Again, we’re doing today’s interview in the middle of November in 2023. How are things going for your sales organization today? What are some of the biggest issues and how are you solving some of those issues?

Steve Harris: Things are going extremely well for us, and the reality is, is that there’s an incredible appetite for progress around both access to data and analytics, and that there’s really truly more barriers to entry for organizations to begin to deliver value than there is essentially progress. It is the most powerful, easy to use platform. Our primary challenge is just getting in front of clients and helping them understand the art of the possible. For us, a demo generally leads to what we call a guided trial. It’s a guided trial and not a proof of concept, because the real power of our platform is that once we put the technology in somebody’s hands, they find that it’s intuitive, that it’s super easy to begin creating value. Frankly, they don’t want to let it go once they’ve tried it.

Fred Diamond: What is the government, what are public sector customers expecting from sales professionals right now?

Steve Harris: Well, first and foremost I think it’s the same that any of us would expect from our doctor or our lawyer. It’s to be very prepared, it’s to be incredibly knowledgeable, and it’s about being right about your recommendations. In order to do that, you have to have deep understanding of your own technology. You have to have a solid understanding of the technology ecosystem that is in and around your capability. But most of all, Fred, I’ll contend that you have to have deep domain expertise. If you’re calling out a K through 12 district, a higher education institution, you’re calling out a civilian agency, or you’re calling the defense industrial base, really understanding deeply what they’re up against and how your technology can advance essentially their work against their challenges and help them actually guarantee delivering outcomes on an applied basis is the best practice.

Fred Diamond: From that perspective, what do you look for? What would be an optimal sales professional specifically for Alteryx? Are you looking to hire seasoned people who are coming from public sector, either as users or people who’ve sold to public sector for their whole career? Are you bringing a lot of junior people in? What is your view on who would be successful, specifically selling at Alteryx?

Steve Harris: You actually named the two examples that I would’ve cited. Number one, I definitely prefer if I’m going to hire a very seasoned and senior account executive or frontline sales leader, or a second line sales leader, then my expectation is that they will have had a career in public sector. If I can’t have that, I would rather have somebody who is new, has a lot of fire in their belly, that’s extremely curious not only about technology, but about public sector mission and committed to learning it, and then bring them up from the ground up.

Fred Diamond: You talked about committed to learning it. You also talked about multiple industries. Again, we have so many sales professionals listening to today’s Sales Game Changers Podcast. Talk about why it’s valuable to have that industry expertise. People ask me all the time, how can I have a successful career in sales? I always say this example, be the Dell guy who sells to Navy. You got a huge audience, you got a huge product that’s in demand. But to have become that guy, you have to understand, of course, the product, but you also got to understand intimately the customer and what they’re going through. You mentioned the word mission before. Talk a little bit about the value. It could be public sector, could be healthcare. You talked about EdTech, you did for a little bit, K through 12. Talk about, for our listeners here, Steve Harris, the value of understanding an industry that can lead to tremendous sales success.

Steve Harris: It’s a great question. When you’re involved in offering a technology that has the ability to create value for the entire constituency, well, let’s just look at a higher education institution. Many of us have had experience on campus. For us, we have a clear approach to creating value for the student, for the faculty, for the staff member, for the administrator, and for those folks that are engaged in research. Those five personas, it’s without specific understanding of what they are faced with, what their mission is when they come to work every day, and/or the responsibility to serve those folks, then what you’re doing is you’re coming and you’re talking about a technology, and you’re expecting that customer to synthesize that and try to bring the value proposition of what you know to what they know. When you have a shared understanding of the challenges that they’re endeavoring to advance, you just get to a value conversation much more rapidly.

Fred Diamond: Along those lines, give us an insight. Again, you’ve been selling to government professionals for a long time. Of course, other industries as well. Give us something that a sales professional may not know about someone who’s in government IT. One thing that we talk about, we’ve had a lot of sales leaders on the show, Steve, who have been with the same company, Microsoft or Oracle, for their whole career, 30 years, and they’ve been selling in a lot of cases to the same person. Give us something that a sales professional may not know that a government sale or IT professional deals with on a daily or quarterly basis.

Steve Harris: Well, first and foremost, unfortunately in the profession of delivering IT, you’re never known for the 99% that you do well. Everybody is always aware of the 1% that goes wrong. It’s how you respond and support that client when something actually does go wrong, and inevitably in IT, it always will. It’s that experience right there that is going to indicate whether or not you’re a reliable, trusted partner that is worthy of additional and future investment. We all have to remember that working in government is just as challenging as it is as a citizen interfacing with government. They have many obstacles and challenges to delivering on what might seem like a simple task. Helping them try to see around corners when they’re thinking about implementation, gaining return on investment, and then ultimately supporting the investment that they made. We really have to think ahead because generally, we can count on the fact that there’s one or more things that are not going to go as planned. That’s the big thing.

Fred Diamond: Again, we’re doing today’s interview in November of 2023. The whole world has changed over the past three years. How have you changed as a tech or business leader in the past three years?

Steve Harris: Well, I learned really rapidly that when you’re not able to be in front of your client building relationships, particularly with a prospect or a new customer, it’s incredibly difficult to acquire business and/or sell a new concept remotely. You can maintain a longstanding or a solid relationship remotely and over Zoom, but I think it’s incredibly challenging to go out there and acquire a new client, particularly if you have to take them away from somebody else that they know. I could never underestimate the value of actually building the relationship, being in front of a customer, and then demonstrating for them face-to-face that you’re going to do what you say you’re going to do, and then ultimately earning the opportunity to demonstrate that.

Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about that for a second then. A lot of the world, of course, is hybrid, and companies are trying to figure out, how do we be hybrid? One of the big challenges for selling organizations is that their customers are also trying to figure out how to be hybrid, and their customers’ customers. Maybe your customer is coming to the office Tuesday and Thursday, and then you couple that with security, just having to be allowed to even come into the building, especially in public sector. I remember walking around the Pentagon by myself when I worked for Apple Computer. I remember I walked past, he was a senator at the time, Al Gore, just walked past Al Gore. He then became VP, of course, under Clinton.

What do you tell your salespeople right now? Because I agree with you, there’s so much has been lost because of the inability to sit in a room with not just our coworkers or the people that report to us, but our customers. Because you can ask a personal question, and as you’re walking out of the meeting, there’s time for even lighter things to get to know them a little better. How are you instructing, advising the people in your organization to try to get back to that, knowing that it’s still a challenge?

Steve Harris: I’m going to give you two answers. One in the context of leading a sales organization, and the other in the context of how this has affected the higher education industry. For me, the most important thing is to determine for my team what the most valuable leading indicators of success actually are. That may not be the number of emails that they’ve sent or phone calls that they’ve tried to make. Rather, it’s who they’ve connected with and the level of engagement that connection has fostered, with a new idea or with an offer that we would ultimately like to make that client. In my business, we talked about the guided trial, similar to a proof of concept.

When a client decides to invest the time to get to that stage of interaction, that’s when we know that we have a real leading indicator of success. There’s so many metrics that are tracked below that, that ultimately, if you’re getting enough clients into that stage every week, the rest of it is noise. With higher ed, it’s been very interesting because pre-pandemic, the learning management system was important. Students certainly expected some ability to learn remotely. Post-pandemic, every student entering higher education has vast experience learning remotely. Not only are they pretty good at it, that means that from a faculty staff/teacher perspective, that you have to be really good at teaching online. Whereas it was never a requirement in the decades, the hundred years of higher education previously. The industry changed on a dime.

Now when you think about it from an analytics perspective, the data that is now in that learning management system, instead of that information system, those interactions are a primary interaction, much more so now than ever before, with that university or college’s client. Now, that is a silo of data that has to be combined with the other interfaces that a student has in order to be able to have a meaningful view of how is that student doing? Is there a risk for attrition? How could we help them learn more effectively? et cetera. It all has to do with that hybrid approach.

Fred Diamond: That’s a great answer to understanding the challenges that your customer faces specifically in those unique verticals. I want to thank Steve Harris. Steve, before I ask you for your final action step, what do you expect from your sales professionals right now? Again, we’re doing today’s interview, it’s November of 2023. The sales organization is what’s going to bring a lot of companies out of the challenges of the last couple of years. You’ve been a sales leader for your entire career. What are your expectations for, let’s say the junior sales professionals, and also the more seasoned ones that we had spoken about before as well?

Steve Harris: People need to be responsible for their own development. That means that they need to hold their manager accountable, their second level manager accountable. They need to gain a baseline for where am I from a talent and development perspective. What are the things that you believe I do well and what are the things that you can help me understand that I could do better? Performance, we’re here to deliver on the numbers that we’re given. We’re here to create results. How do I know the time that I’m spending is actually going to be accretive to those outcomes? Do I have a strong strategy? Do I know how to build ecosystem and relationships across the industry around my client? How do I know that I’m building good, solid pipeline? How do I personally pressure test that? How am I always thinking ahead to my plan to close?

Fred Diamond: Steve, I want to acknowledge you for being on the show today, for the success you’ve had in your career. I know you’ve served, again, Dell, for what were you there, 25 years you said you were at Dell?

Steve Harris: Yeah, just about 25.

Fred Diamond: By the way, I say this once in a while, in 1993 when I left Apple Computer, I could have chosen between Dell and Compaq, and I chose to go to Compaq. If I had chosen Dell, we wouldn’t be doing this show right now because I would be on a yacht somewhere. I just want to acknowledge you for the thousands of people that you’ve led. A lot of people have asked me over the years, when are you going to have Steve Harris on the show? Appreciate your being here and giving us your insights. Give us one final action step. Again, you’ve given us so many great ideas. Give us something specific for the people listening to do right now after either listening to the show or reading the transcript.

Steve Harris: Take a personal inventory, both of what you believe your greatest strengths are, as well as your greatest opportunities for improvement. Validate that list with your direct manager and with a peer or two that know you. Then figure out an action plan to deliver on continuous improvement.

Fred Diamond: Once again, I want to thank Steve Harris for being on today’s Sales Game Changers Podcast. My name is Fred Diamond.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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