EPISODE 368: Dun and Bradstreet Public Sector Leader Tim Solms Says Sales Success Comes Down to Mission, Metrics and Action

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Sales Game Changers LIVE Webinar sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on May 31, 2021. It featured Dun and Bradstreet EVP and GM for Public Sector Sales Leader Tim Solms.]

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TIM’S TIP FOR EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “I’m going to give you an acronym: MMA. Everyone thinks MMA, mission, metrics and action. Always know, what is the mission I’m trying to support? What are the metrics that get me there? And what are the next action steps that I have to take?


Fred Diamond: Tim Solms, it’s great to see you. We’ve had a nice string of public sector leaders, we had Jennifer Chronis from Verizon last week who just gave a fantastic show for us, we had capture manager Erich Wiemann from CACI, Eileen Kent, The Sales Sherpa. Now we have you, you’re the General Manager, the EVP for Dun & Bradstreet public sector. First off, you spent a lot of time in the army, I want to thank you for your service.

Tim Solms: It was a blast most of the time.

Fred Diamond: I want to thank you for being on today’s show and giving us some of your expertise. It’s a really interesting time, Tim, and we talked about this right before the show had begun that a lot of people are vaccinated now. Especially, again, we’re based here in the US, I’m doing today’s show in Northern Virginia. Tim is usually here, but he’s somewhere else right now.

People are vaccinated, they’re getting out, they’re evaluating what they want to do. We talked before about how some people are thinking, do I want to go back to an office? Do I want to stay employed right now? It’s a real interesting time.

It’s early June, can you believe it’s June? It’s the middle of 2021. First off, Tim, it’s great to see you. Let’s get started, man. How are things going for you and your organization?

Tim Solms: To reflect from what you just said and what I’m thinking, I’d say we’re all cautiously optimistic. Normally, you’d ask how are things going in your organization? And it’s right to business and metrics, but we’ve got to talk about the people because that’s the biggest thing that we’ve had going on.

Candidly, we’re seeing a lot of shifts.  We’re seeing some people reevaluating decisions, we’re certainly seeing geographical reevaluations. “Am I in the right place? Does this make sense for me? If I don’t have to get up and make that two-hour commute every day and be seen in the office, am I going to do things differently?”

The other factor on top of that is we’ve had a lot of social unrest, that’s also driving some decisions. Some good decisions, some bad decisions, but back to the business side, it leaves us all to represent the values of our organizations as we’re out walking our dog between meetings. It’s not work vs. home, but it’s us, we’re in the banner of our companies through our personal interaction with the community around us every day.

Fred Diamond: You’re talking about value. Again, you’re running public sector for Dun & Bradstreet, is it still known as D&B or do you prefer Dun & Bradstreet?

Tim Solms: Let’s call it D&B.

Fred Diamond: [Laughs] all right. You mentioned values. Again, you’re servicing the public sector and we’ll get to that in some detail, but tell us what that means. What are the values that your company represents in serving this particular customer?

Tim Solms: Anybody who works in the public sector, there are barriers to entry. Everything from security, contracting apparatus that you have to use. But the bottom line is, is there trust? You mentioned people like Jennifer Chronis, Joe Ayers and others, these are all people I’ve known, those two people I happened to have served with.

It’s a team sport. One of my buddies who’s been in this business a long time, we used to talk about it being a team sport. The fact of the matter is that there’s an opportunity for us to hold each other accountable when it comes to those values here in this market. You look at anybody on LinkedIn or their resume when you’re interviewing, we move around a little bit. Not as much as we used to, but we move around and those are the reputations that you take with you.

When it comes to our corporations or our businesses, our companies, our firms or whatever it is, I always say, do we represent the things that our candidates look for when they come and tell us to interview? #1 top of that list is culture. Almost impossible to measure, but you know within 24 hours whether it’s good or bad.

The second thing, are you doing something innovative and disruptive? And back to the culture thing, are you doing it in a responsible way? The last thing is creating an atmosphere where people have the ability to make an impact. What I found is if you can line those three things up, you’re going to be bringing the right type of engagement to what I’d call those heroes in the public sector.

Fred Diamond: From a sales organizational perspective, what are some of the top priorities right now? Again, it really is an interesting time. We’re seeing so many shifts going on, we’ve been doing a webinar every single day since the pandemic kicked in, in 2020. It’s actually quite unbelievable to me that it’s June because we’ve done so many and we’ve been through moments of social unrest, we’ve been through moments of political challenge.

We actually did a webinar on January 26th, and I couldn’t believe why there was nobody watching. Then I walk upstairs and I see that the capital building is insurrected right now. We’ve seen so many evolutions and mental health is one that came up. Value, commitment to customers.

I’m just curious, you’re leading a large sales organization, the entire business, if you will. What are some of the key priorities that you have right now as we emerge from this? It’s interesting, we’re going into what we call the federal buying season, the end of federal fiscal’s coming up less than four months. There’s a lot of things going on, so give us an idea of what some of the organizational sales priorities are right now.

Tim Solms: The first thing I’m looking for, and this is going to sound odd, is I’m looking for fatigue. Fatigue is not necessarily a bad thing, but it has to be identified. As you have people that are in and spending their time working extraordinary hours, unless you’re an on-site people-centric organization within the government, I’ll bet you that your watchers and listeners accelerated through the pandemic.

The government’s need for capable services, any forms of technology accelerated, as did ours, a big part of that was a do-good effort. For us, particularly in Dun & Bradstreet, we had the White House’s National Economic Council reached out almost immediately and said, hey, look. We’re trying to build this thing called a PPP and bring it over to congress and you have data that we need. How fast can you pull this together?

It’s not something we’re going to charge for because we felt we had a moral and professional obligation during a time of national emergency. But a year plus later, we’re looking for that fatigue and we’re looking to identify that in one another. It’s not like we’re in an office and you recognize when somebody’s dragging a little bit.

It’s much more subtle, but we’re watching it very closely because we are at a place where some kids went back to school, some parents are just finishing another long year of homeschool or are trying to look over their second grader’s shoulder as they continue with Zoom classes and they’re exhausted.

Many of us, especially peers of mine have looked to say, look, we’re going to accommodate schedules. If you need to start at 5:00 in the morning or 8 o’clock at night, that’s fine. We want to make sure that we work with you because we’re focused on objectives, we’re focused on outcomes and to a person, we’re willing to be flexible to accommodate lifestyles, families and other obligations. You get a lot of people who are just ready to take a breath and you said, “We’re going into our busy season, it’s time.”

Fred Diamond: You actually raise some really interesting points. Again, we’re broadcasting today’s show, I’m based in Northern Virginia. When the pandemic kicked in, the technology community made this unbelievable move to help get the government customer on the cloud. For years, it’s been governments moving to cloud within a month. You heard me mention some of our sponsors in the beginning, companies like AWS and Red Hat and Dell, Intel is one of our Gold Sponsors.

They would say to me, “Fred, we’re working around the clock. We’re getting up at 6:00 in the morning, we’re going to bed at 10:00.” This was like for three, four months, and even still, the buying season kicked in. We also have a lot of people on the commercial side, but a lot of the people we talk to are peers of yours.

It really hasn’t stopped and it’s interesting because here it is, June. And you’re right, you’re going through a tough time right now. The industry is, because if the government doesn’t buy by a certain date, the money doesn’t get used. I want to talk to you about a slightly different topic, and we have a quick question here that comes in from Jillie.

We’ve talked a lot on the Sales Game Changers podcast and our webinars about high performance. We’ve been using the word elite, it’s interesting, we’ve had a lot of words over time. Right now, value, empathy, elite, those kind of things. You’re right, people are tired, there’s fatigue, I actually searched for rental cars for a trip I’m taking next week and they’re gone [laughs] all of Hertz’s rental cars are gone in the DC area the week of July 4th.

But you still need to perform in sales. We had a great show almost a year ago, I forget who it was that said that sales was going to lead their companies – it was actually Lee Salz, a sales speaker. Talk about the concept, Tim, of being an elite performer right now because you’re right, fatigue, pandemic, all these things are thrown at you. But you still have to perform because every company that’s listening today needs sales to come in and to keep the ball rolling. Or else, there’s going to be bigger problems.

Tim Solms: Sales is a very unforgiving profession, and we’re seeing some people opt out, we’re seeing other people jump in with both feet. When you talk about that elite, elite doesn’t mean nonstop. Elite doesn’t mean that you’re in high gear all the time, it means having a really good understanding of when it’s time to surge and when it’s time to pull back.

As we’ve all focused on culture, the other piece too is making sure that the people that are supposed to be providing support are doing that. Top sales performers have a whole list of common attributes, some are really positive, some aren’t so positive.

As we’re watching our top salespeople, and I’m fortunate to have a vice president of sales to manage that organization, as I’m watching those sales teams as well, looking for those early indicators that we may be off azimuth by a few degrees. Making sure that we can adjust quickly.

The demand changes, we go through election cycles, we go through spending periods. This is the first time that we saw a new administration come in during a pandemic with such a major shift in mission focus. We all predicted it’s going to be a little slower for the cabinet level officials to prioritize their mission and see how that’s going to fall. It’s been a little slower than we expected, but we see that that’s going to pick up very quickly.

Making sure that those people are very clear of what the expectations are and making sure that we get ahead of the requirements. Again, and taking care of those people. We’ve identified strategically that supply chain and supply chain security is going to be a big factor.

The data, the analytics, the training, the support, the partners, the vehicles, are all of those set and ready to go so that that salesperson can stay focused and they’re not having to worry about what’s left and right? And they’re not having to worry about the support that’s supposed to be behind them, they can execute.

The benefits of COVID are that we’ve been able to get really crisp on what I call the clear bright lines between rules and responsibilities. Making sure whether you’re a quota-carrying, revenue-generating person or whether you’re out there building custom quotes, that the metrics behind what it is you’re expected to do are clearly understood and monitored and reported and expected as often as we can.

Fred Diamond: Tim Solms, we have a question for you that’s coming in from Jensen. “Tim mentioned he was in the army. What key lesson did he take from the army into his sales leadership?” I just want to acknowledge that Tim is actually at business leadership at this point, he manages the whole sales and other things in D&B’s public sector organization.

Maybe you can share for a second or two, Tim. Again, you were in the military, the army for 18 years. If you think about it, what’s the one thing that you find yourself that you took from the army that’s part of your leadership persona?

Tim Solms: You get asked a lot, what’s your leadership style? The answer is it depends. I’d ask you, how do you drive or how do you parent? It depends. Am I on the beltway in traffic or am I on a wide-open highway? What I’m saying is read the environment, be able to adjust very quickly.

I champion three things in people, very smart people, extremely creative and then the ability to translate ideas into action. Surprisingly, it’s easy to find two out of those three, it’s not as easy to find all three. When you do, you can’t get that person to roll fast enough and to do everything you can to support them.

When I look at leadership lessons from the military, a lot of it is stuff I did wrong, stuff where I didn’t have the maturity or what was in front of me and I was supported by some really good people that helped me through those times. I’d say recognizing opportunities to learn, making mistakes and being very, very clear and candid.

Listening to feedback, people will tell you if you’re willing to listen and if you ask the question and you don’t hear any feedback, something’s not right. Here’s a good lesson we used to say. As long as the soldiers are complaining, everything’s okay. They believe that you have the ability to fix it, it’s when they stop complaining that you really need to get worried.

Fred Diamond: That is a powerful point, they’ve resigned at that point. We have a question here that comes in from Neil and Neil says, “How are conversations going with customers right now?” That’s a question we ask a lot, Tim. In the very beginning there wasn’t a whole lot of transactional stuff going on. It was how are you? How are things going?

We talked a lot about obviously, empathy but not just empathy. Also, getting a little deeper. A question that had come up a lot was in the public sector there’s rules, regulations, there’s certain ways you can engage, contracts, federal acquisition regulations, those kinds of things.

Talk a little bit right now about how you and your organization, your sales team is physically interacting. Again, of course, you’re getting towards the buying season. I’ll let you answer the question, but what do the conversations look like right now and how are you directing your team to have those conversations?

Tim Solms: First of all, access to the customer has actually gotten better. There’s no expectation to be on site for a meeting, and when you get 30 minutes booked on a Zoom call or a Teams call, you get that 30 minutes and you expect to show up and be prepared. We’ve dispensed with some of the niceties that I would say, waiting in the office, getting a cup of coffee, coming in and introducing, passing out business cards.

The focus is on the mission and when there’s so much emphasis and pressure for the people within the public sector to deliver and to show results and to support their constituency or the citizens or the constitution, we have to be able to come in and be very crisp about what it is that we can offer that’s relevant to that mission.

Mission alignment has become absolutely crystal-clear. The other thing I would tell you is nobody wants to hear about products or data, they want to hear about use cases. Give me something that’s relevant that aligns to what it is that I need. I don’t care the data, the analytics that you need to get there, tell me what it is that that you can deliver to meet this requirement and then you figure out how to deliver it in a responsible, reliable way.

Fred Diamond: We have a question here that comes in, “How has Tim changed as a sales leader over the last year?” Again, Tim, I’m doing the webinars every single day and I can’t believe I’m doing this interview with you right now and it’s June. I have so many memories of all of these shows and the last year at various times.

It’s going into a year and a quarter almost since the pandemic had begun, it’s beginning to wind down at least in the United States where we are. How have you changed? Take a deep look into yourself and give us some thoughts on Tim Solms, the man. How have you shifted as a leader or a person?

Tim Solms: It’s interesting because I was sitting in my house on Capital Hill on January 6th. I don’t own that house anymore, I have five daughters, three have graduated from college thank goodness. It’s all government and public service type people, I wound up selling that.

I moved out of DC, that was a pretty big deal. One of the things that we started right before the pandemic was an open mic time. Friday afternoon, 12 o’clock for 45 minutes, I open a call up on Teams and it’s wide open. Go in, ask a question, complain, “I don’t understand your strategy” or, “Here’s something I saw”, “Here’s something I need.” Those have become pretty popular.

85% or more of the organization actually shows up just to listen or ask a question, and I have to be willing to let people be very candid and very direct. I’ve noticed more than ever when I’m tired, when I don’t have the ability, I’m in the car and I’ve got a commute and I can hide behind a car plate or something like that.

When we’re doing these, we’re 18 inches away from each other looking at each other’s faces and our family and our lifestyles going on around us. It’s become much more apparent to me when I’m showing that level of fatigue that can result in different behavior.

Fred Diamond: We got a follow-up question here. “What are sales reps doing wrong?” That’s an interesting question. If I had asked you February of 2020, you might have had a completely different answer. I’m curious now, what do you see people doing wrong? Not necessarily your pet peeve, but what do you hope sales reps would not be doing, what they should be doing to improve how they go about their job?

Tim Solms: Sometimes there’s activity in the absence of action or thought. Sometimes I’ll see a lot of activity that really isn’t aligned to getting something accomplished. One of the things I said when we opened this call, sales is very unforgiving. You know that, there’s risk and there’s reward in the profession of sales, but there’s a tremendous amount of accountability.

All of us operate in 13-week cycles and we always know what week it is within that 13-week cycle. What’s expected of me in week 6, in week 10? You don’t get a lot of opportunities to mess that up. When we’re inspecting and we see people that start that activity and there’s not a lot of results or focus in that activity, that’s an indicator that somebody’s getting off track.

The question you asked, what are some salespeople doing wrong? I’d say that’s one. The second one, I would say is people that like to job out their job. I’ve got a partner or I’ve got a reseller and I can just turn it over to them. At this point, I’m just managing renewals or I’m managing contracts or I’m managing email. You absolutely have to own it, you have to own the metrics of it and you have to be able to be very good at predicting outcomes based on what’s within your arena.

Fred Diamond: I have a question I very rarely ask, I think I hardly ever ask this question. Do you have a go-to mantra or go-to quote, if I were to go ask your team, what is Tim’s go-to motivational thing? The reason I ask is I told you before the show, I’ve actually reorganized my studio and I’ve moved a couple things.

I have this quote, I have a whole bunch of them here at my left but my favorite one is, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right” by Henry Ford. I don’t mean to put you on the spot with this one, but do you have a go-to that people say, “Tim’s going to be saying that one when we hit a certain point”?

Tim Solms: It’s funny because it actually goes back to one of the last deployments I made when I was an attack pilot and I was in the war at Kosovo – that tells you all how old I am. Operated on the ground at a multinational environment and more specifically, the special operations community from the UK. They’re saying, “Who dares, wins.” Basically, do not be risk averse. Be bold in what it is that you do, but you also have to understand that that community values intelligence and creativity. That’s one of the things that I look for a lot.

Fred Diamond: I want to follow up on that. Creativity, we do a webinar every Friday, it’s called the Creativity in Sales webinar. Every Thursday we do one on Mindset, Optimal Sales Mindset, and we bring on athletes, motivational speakers, we’ve had some entertainers. We talked about that side of the sales process.

On Friday it’s called Creativity in Sales and I get a couple people here saying, “I love that show.” Thank you, Marty. We call it Creativity in Sales, it’s sales tactics, prospecting, social selling, the usual type of hardcore professional development. You mentioned creativity in your last answer.

Before we get to one or two final questions, talk about that for a second. I’m glad you brought up that word. A lot of people get confused by it, but my theory is really very simple. There’s ways you can make phone calls but when the pandemic kicked in, if you weren’t thinking creatively and if you weren’t managing creatively…

We knew people in the beginning who were doing things the same way. You’ve got to make 100 phone calls today, well, people were wondering if the world’s coming to an end. Even now, I loved a lot of your answers about understanding where people are and how we engage with them based on where they are.

Tim Solms: It’s interesting, you use the word sales a lot and I don’t. I say go to market and the reason I say that is because marketing is side by side with our salespeople. One of the things that I’ve learned in the last five or six years is that marketing is at the very tip of the sphere. Most marketing people get relegated to, hey, I need a slick, I need a white paper, help us with a conference, make sure that I’m set up to put out something on LinkedIn.

What I’ve done is I’ve challenged them, I said, hey, you own three key things. You’re the eyes and years of the competitive marketplace, you own all things demand generation, you report on it, you measure it. The last thing is I need you to look at the historical performance of the business and our current information and predict how we’re going to finish. But I need sales and marketing people to be doing that side by side in the form of go to market.

It’s a pretty dramatic shift. When I talk about creativity, it isn’t just, “I found a better way to get on a phone call.” It’s people who are looking to say, the market is shifting, the environment is changing, the expectations are changing and I want to get ahead of some of those requirements.

There’s a gentleman who’s been with Dun & Bradstreet for 30 years, he lives on the West Coast, a guy called Bill Green. When Bill speaks, I listen. Not because he has so many years with Dun & Bradstreet, but because he’s extremely thoughtful about what he brings forward. He complains to me a lot and that’s a good thing.

We were getting ready to launch a quite a bit of new capability that came with a significant capital investment. We showed up on one of those open mics and I was talking about it, and he said, “Nobody asked me what I needed.” My first response was a little bit defensive, “You’ve got a manager, you have an obligation to speak up.”

But the fact of the matter is I did need to ask him because I value the guy’s insight and opinion so much, shame on me and shame on our Chief Technology Officer for not asking Bill Green what he thought was going to be some of the most important features, functions, additions, data and analytics to drive relevancy within that market. Relevancy begets growth.

That’s what I’m talking about, what are the things that I can bring to bear so I can bring the best out of the people, I can empower them the most and they can bring to bear the most relevant capability? That leads to growth. We’ve focused a lot on the outcome and not so much on what it is that we’ve put in place to get there.

Fred Diamond: Tim, I got time for one more question, then we’re going to ask you for your final action step. You’ve given us so many great ideas today. Just a quick interesting point, you mentioned that I talk about sales all the time, this podcast and I run the Institute for Excellence in Sales.

As a matter of fact, most of my career was in corporate and product marketing, a lot of people know this. I was at Apple Computer for a long time in marketing, I was at Compaq Computer for a number of years in marketing and I worked for a large software company called Compuware in international product marketing for a number of years. I’ve made it a lot of places, never Kosovo.

Tim Solms: Smart.

Fred Diamond: [Laughs] when I was there, it wasn’t really the best time to be in Kosovo. But seriously, the reason I created the Institute for Excellence in Sales is I definitely believe marketing plays a role. My inclination is that if marketing’s doing wrong things and not focused on the right things, then it’s just interesting. Every company’s mission is to grow, either by increased revenue or whatever it might be.

One last question here before I ask you for your final action step. What are your expectations of sales professionals right now? I know you manage the whole organization, but just give us relatively a brief answer. What do you expect from people right now? Again, it’s the beginning of June, we’re going to have thousands of people listening to this way into the future. For right now, what do you expect?

Tim Solms: Every salesperson is some form of a quarterback. I need them to know the plays and which ones are going to work and not work. The ones that they don’t think are going to work, they need to be talking to the staff to make sure that they get in alignment and they’re ready to execute. When I say ready to execute, be very keenly aware of the key performance indicators of what it is that they’re expected to do. Understand what it takes to deliver those KPIs and to be reporting on those regularly.

The second part of that question is hold the people around you that are supporting that go to market organization, hold them accountable to the expectations that you set with them in advance.

Fred Diamond: Tim, before I ask you for your final thought here, I just want to acknowledge you. You might not know this, but when we posted we were doing the show, I got a lot of nice feedback from people, people who’ve been on the show before. You mentioned a couple of names. I’ve already acknowledged you for your service, but I want to acknowledge you for your leadership and how you’ve impacted evidently, many people.

Because like I said, I got a nice comment from people saying, hey, good job getting Tim on the show. I want to thank your marketing people for their support. You’ve given us a lot of great ideas, a lot of things to think about. Give us one specific action step to close down that people should do today to take their sales career to the next level.

Tim Solms: I’m going to give you an acronym: MMA. Everyone thinks MMA, mission, metrics and action. Always know, what is the mission I’m trying to support? What are the metrics that get me there? And what are the next action steps that I have to take?

Fred Diamond: Tim Solms, D&B public sector, thank you so much. Have a fantastic buying season which is kicking in shortly. To all of our listeners, thank you all so much for being a listener of the Sales Game Changers webinars or podcasts.


Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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