EPISODE 420: Powerful Strategies for Public Sector Sales with Carahsoft’s Will Jones

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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 October 13, 2021. It featured Carahsoft sales leader Will Jones. Carahsoft is an IES Premier Sales Employer]

Register for the IES LIVE Event on November 5 in Falls Church, VA here.

Find Will on LinkedIn here.

WILL’S TIP FOR EMERGING SALES LEADERS: It’s a perfect time to reassess your sphere of influence in your job, what you’re doing, who you’re influencing, who you’re interacting with. Looking at that and seeing where you can do better things, do better work, interact with more people. In our space, we’re lucky to be supporting who we’re supporting and I think broadening your sphere of influence is really important. I would leave that with the audience today.


Fred Diamond: I’m thrilled to have Will Jones here with Carahsoft. At the IES we do an award event every year, and the recipient of our Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020 was Craig Abod, your President and one of the true industry leaders in the public sector marketplace. Let’s get right to it, we’re doing today’s interview in October of 2021 and for people who are watching, the federal fiscal year ended on September 30th, and that’s a huge time. Give us a little bit of perspective, not everybody who’s watching understands the public sector marketplace. It’s great to see you, tell us a little bit about what the calendar year looks like and then tell us how things are going right now for public sector sales organizations.

Will Jones: Fred, thank you. I appreciate the time and love being a part of this. We’re doing okay, we’re off to a new year start. September was normal in a lot of ways in terms of closing out, helping support our customers and our partner ecosystems. All of the vendors that we support in the public sector space get the budget closed out. With COVID over the last 18 months, there have been a lot of budget changes in place. I think positive budget changes, but public sector sales organizations’ adjusting to the new landscape and I think things are going okay. There’s a lot of different things happening out there, but I think generally, September was a normal month closing out for our partners.

Fred Diamond: We have a couple questions coming in already, so people want to know more about Carahsoft. You guys are a unique company in the marketplace, you’re leading in so many ways, you represent so many companies helping them get business with the government and satisfy government customers. We have a question here coming in from Ken. “Can Will explain Carahsoft’s business model? Are you a distributor or a VAR, and how does that work in the marketplace?” Talk a little bit about Carahsoft’s unique approach to the market, and that’ll help our listeners understand where we’re going to be going from here.

Will Jones: We’re a lot of things. We’re a partner of partners, we’re a master aggregator, we’re a value-added distributor. A lot of those things have different functions, but ultimately, our job is to support our technology vendors. In my case, VMware is a huge part of our business, we help VMware and their partner ecosystem go to market and into the federal, state and local education and healthcare market. We’re doing our best to enable every partner that we have, and we’ve built a strong business practice.

With VMware, we’re 15 years in, that’s a long-standing partnership with lots of good relationships and we try to do our best to get the solutions needed from this very important customer that is our government customer, and leverage all of these technology solutions that we have. We’re in a very unique position, but ultimately, it’s getting the customer what they need.

Fred Diamond: Talk a little bit about the federal customer. I’m based in the Washington DC area, so a lot of people that we’ve had on the show have devoted their careers to selling and servicing the government customer. Talk a little bit about why it’s such a mission-driven marketplace, and what does that mean? Why have you devoted your career to servicing the public sector?

Will Jones: Many of us have, obviously, in this area. Just to give some comparison, we moved into the commercial healthcare sector for VMware when they pivoted into that market and it was one of the first times that many of us had done anything other than true public sector work. I think that just proves how important the market is, not just in the DC area, everyone who sells to the government knows there’s large areas out on the west coast, there’s large areas in the Denver area and all over the country that support the citizens of the country in the federal space.

Our government customers are so unique in terms of the mission, their mission is enterprise scale every minute of every day and if you don’t look at them in that way, I think you’re not totally optimizing your service delivery to them. The way they’re driven by budget, the way they’re driven by mission, the change that has to happen – COVID, wartime efforts, all types of things change so quickly. If you can’t have that flexibility in supporting those types of changes and missions and areas that way, I don’t think you’re doing everything you can to support them. Again, we’re trying to enable our partners and our vendors to be able to support those very unique challenges that we often come across.

Fred Diamond: Will, what are some of the priorities of your sales organization today right now?

Will Jones: Fred, our priorities today, October is a planning month in many cases. In our federal end of year we closed out, the dust is settling, we’re looking to see the budget priorities for this current year. We’re tracking the spending bills, the technology modernization fund, the recovery act funds that are still being leveraged within our federal space and state and local. A lot of planning today, but it’s a full calendar cycle for us, it’s a calendar year cycle. We’re always busy but doing different things.

We were closing in September, we were helping support our customers close out their budget year in September. October is, okay, what are the new technology solutions that are available to these customers? How do we market them effectively? How do we enable our partner ecosystems to sell into the spaces that they’re experts in? A lot of marketing, a lot of proactive work being done during these winter months, October, November, December. It’s just a lot of enablement during this time.

Fred Diamond: One of the things your company is famous for is metrics and to give another nod to Craig, I mentioned this when he received our Lifetime Achievement Award. I first met Craig in the late 80s when I was working for Apple Computer and he was working for Apple’s top reseller into the government marketplace. Whenever I would go to their building, there would be signs all over the building with charts and graphs all over the place. I remember I asked the CEO, “Who does this?” and he said, “We have this guy named Craig.” Of course, Craig now runs that. Talk a little bit about some of the key metrics, what are some of the key drivers you look for to understand how well your sales professionals are performing? And maybe some signs that some work needs to be done.

Will Jones: That’s a great question, Fred. We continue to track and manage our workforce in a very positive way, there’s a lot of coaching going on even in these COVID times, we’ve learned to work remote via Zoom, Teams and all the platforms that we can interact with internally and externally. The paper has been transformed in Craig’s world into digital dashboards, our technology team, our IT teams are developing automation and metrics. Digital dashboards that we can use as sales leaders to not track, but really manage and coach our sales teams.

The whole transformation of remote workforce, we really relied heavily on everybody in the office, the energy that was created in our sales pod with our sellers. We could hear everyone over the phone, you could just interact and literally, there was a buzz in the building when it was September or end-of-quarter or a sales campaign going on. We’re trying to replicate that as best we can using technology, but those digital dashboards, we’re trying to really measure quality interactions with partners or customers or whoever we’re talking to, a federal systems integrator. It’s the quality that we’re tracking these days, we do it in a lot of different ways. A lot of it is automated and it is super cool to be able to track and manage and look at all of these metrics coming through.

Fred Diamond: We have a question that’s coming in here from Marty, “Why would I want to devote my sales career to the federal marketplace?” You talked before about the mission, things like that. Let’s say you’re a junior sales professional and you’re about to graduate and sales is your major and you want to get into sales. There’s a lot of options on markets you can pursue, why would somebody want to devote their sales career to the federal space?

Will Jones: I think you’ve got to understand and have a certain passion for the government, how things work. Every aspect, I studied it a little bit in school so I had some idea of expectations going in. But there is no other customer that has mission requirements like we do, and it’s not just us. The state and local agencies are as tied in these days to similar missions, cybersecurity, a state getting hacked and the OPM getting hacked. What’s the difference? Your personal information is out there. As you know, Fred, and a lot of us in the industry know, the coordination between federal, state and local has never been tighter in terms of technology and cyber and things like that.

I would answer the question by saying if you have a true passion for helping support all of the things that our government does – which is a lot and it’s a lot more than people and everyday America see. Whether it be social security checks or keeping people safe every single day, those are the things that we are obviously super passionate about. The fact that we can help in any small way just gets us real excited.

Fred Diamond: I spent the first part of my career with Apple Computer, like I mentioned before, and I was in marketing. I went on a sales call with one of our sales reps and we went into downtown DC and he pulled over the car. He said, “I want you to get out of the car and take a look around.” We were down in the federal center area near the Smithsonian’s, for people who’ve been traveling to DC. He said, “Take a look around. These buildings aren’t going to be torn down, this marketplace will always be here. If you want to sell, this marketplace will always be here.”

You’re in a very competitive space, I remember we had a guy named Gary Newgaard on the podcast a couple years ago and he said, the federal space is the NFL of sales. Everybody is in it, all the vendors who sell anything in technology, hospitality, media, whatever it is, everybody’s trying to go after the government. You’ve given us some good reasons why, it’s also huge. We call it Fortune 1, like we mentioned before, so you’ve got to be good. Not only do you have to be good, you also have to be elite. That’s a word that we’ve been using a lot of to survive and to have a nice 15, 20, 30-year career in some cases. What should sales professionals be doing right now to be at the top of their game, to be elite? You could talk about the average sales professional, and you could talk about leaders as well.

Will Jones: The average sales professional, I think the passion. If you don’t have a passion for what you’re doing, I think you’re not going to be fully optimized in the spot you’re in. Are you going to have immediate passion for what you’re doing? Maybe not, maybe that comes over time, but the path to that passion I think is critically important. Whether it be selling to the bank or selling to the postal service, I think the passion has got to be there.

Elite is an interesting word. Again, being the partner of partners, relationship building and partnerships are critical. We feel like we’re successful because we have aligned ourselves with technology solutions that the government needs to do the work that they do every single day. It is not a nice-to-have, it is a mission-critical solution to run your ERP or run your weapon systems, infrastructure, edge, networking. Anything that the government needs, I think you need to make sure that you’re a part of and positioning is important. Yes, very competitive, but I think if you have strong enough partnerships in the space, that competition is negated a bit.

Fred Diamond: We have a question that comes in from Vivian. Vivian says, “Will mentions relationships. Isn’t it hard to develop relationships with government customers because of the rules and laws you must follow?” That’s a great question, Vivian, let’s talk about that. You did mention relationships, Will, and again, your company must have tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands at some level. I’m sure most of them are some degree of technology-based, but talk about how you build relationships with a customer – and she’s right, there are laws that you need to follow. There’s something, for people listening, called the Federal Acquisition Regulations. You can’t give gifts above a certain amount of money, you can’t take them out for meals sometimes and most government customers are very sincere about that, they take it very seriously, their role in managing our money. It’s basically tax money, at the end of the day.

Along the lines of that, talk a little bit about customer conversations with the federal customers. We’ve all come through the pandemic, we’re still technically in the pandemic, those of us who work for the government and not who have kids, you’ve had to manage your kids. If you have an older relative who might have gotten sick, ill or possibly even died, you have to be empathetic to that. Talk a little bit about building relationships with government customers, and then how are you interacting with them right now?

Will Jones: It’s a good question, Vivian. If you’re not taking that seriously, you’re not in the business. This is not a traditional sales environment, you are not doing steak dinners, you are not doing football games and things like that. This is a 100% professional environment, we’re dealing with warranted contracting officers on the Pyramid side, we’re dealing with senior officers in the military, we’re dealing with senior executive service folks within the civilian space. It is 100% professional and if you don’t treat it as such, I would offer you’re not doing what you should be doing. We take that very seriously.

Fred, I’ll repeat it. We’re providing solutions for our customers to help them do their job, and if you take that approach, if you’re offering a solution or a professional service that if you’ve done your homework, you know the mission of your customer. You know that your solution can help with a requirement, the government goes through Request for Information, Request for Quote, Request for Purchase. There is very, very stringent processes in place for you to get information to your customer or your prospect at the time.

Here’s the good part. It is hard to crack that code initially, but once you have proven that you’re successful in providing that solution to your government customer, that government customer appreciates that. Trust me, that feeling is as good as it gets and you then have a customer for quite some time. These contracts, three to five years typically, they have the options where you’ve got to prove yourself every year to do the right thing and continue to provide good service. But once you have a customer and you’re taking good care of them in terms of the solutions that you’re offering and the services, you’re going to have a customer for a long time.

Fred Diamond: I want to talk a little bit about coaching. You have a large sales organization because of all the vendors that you service, Carahsoft is known as a great place to start your career. It’s also, I’m sure, a great place to continue, but let’s just talk about starting here. You can get to know technology, you can get to know the marketplace and obviously, you can get to know sales. It’s been a challenging 18 months, though. A lot of people have been having to work from home, it’s been hard, you haven’t been able to manage or coach the people as easily as you could have when everyone was showing up at the office. Talk a little bit about coaching. What are some of the things that you’re recommending to your leaders to coach the junior sales professionals so that they can continue to grow and be as optimal as possible?

Will Jones: It’s a great question. It has changed so much in 18 months, I think it’s a work in progress for us. Pre-COVID, we have as good of a training curriculum as anybody. I’ve seen our vendors, I’ve seen our partners, we have a strong curriculum. We leverage a little bit of our vendor curriculum, we have a lot of inside corporate work and teams that develop our curriculum.

To your point, Fred, how the government works, how to sell to the government, how to sell, period. Then what does technology do to help support the government? There’s a lot of pillars that we’re working to train our new hires on, and many of our new hires are new college graduates. We do a lot of recruiting at the universities locally here in the DC area, we do it now at this point all over the northeast and across the country.

We’re working to harness the energy of a new college grad, the go-getter right out of school who’s, “I’m ready to sell, I’m ready to go tackle this tough market, give me what I need,” and I think we do. Now, COVID has changed things a little. I said the buzz of inside the sales pods is not there, we’re trying to replicate that as much as we can via technology platforms that we sell. We’re using the technology that we sell which is good, it makes us better sellers, but it has been a challenge. I don’t think any organization will tell you it’s been easy.

We do have a big environment, we have a big sales team, and I will say this too. These new college grads just out of school, graduated probably virtually, interviewed virtually, these folks are living in their one-bedroom apartment and on the couch in front of their computer, that is not how I started, that is not how Craig started. That is not how none of us started and I think we have to be really sensitive to that. We’ve taken a huge step forward on understanding the mental health picture of COVID. We’re really sensitive to that, but at the same time, there are other mechanisms for us to be able to coach our new hires and keep our leaders sharp, we do a lot of training. It’s a different space, but the fundamentals we’ve kept very clear.

Fred Diamond: I appreciate you bringing up mental health, that’s something that comes up, personal care is something that comes up at least once a week. On our Women in Sales show we brought someone on last week just to talk about nutrition, proper nutrition and sleep during this time. It’s interesting, we’re going to be pushing the clocks back this weekend, I believe, so it’s going to get darker earlier and some of these young professionals are still going to be in the one-bedroom apartment and it’s going to get darker earlier, and some places are still going to be closed. That’s something that we saw a lot of last December and January, Will, young professionals who their company said, “You’re in your apartment, you might as well keep working, you can’t go anywhere.” It’ll be interesting to see, mental health is a huge challenge.

We have a question that comes in from Nick, “Great answer about coaching. Can Will speak about building teams virtually?” A bit of a different twist. Talk a little bit about building teams. Again, we’ve been mostly virtual for the last 18 some odd months, it’s going to start getting into winter so you can’t have a lot of those outdoor meetings that a lot of people were having. I know we want to get people back inside as quickly as we can and the DV is going down. Talk a little bit about team building right now. Is that important, first of all? Second of all, what are some things you might be doing and recommending?

Will Jones: Team building is important, team building during COVID is different than it’s ever been. I will tell you just going back again, to be able to build our team, we hire within, we promote within. Every single one of our leaders has been in every spot within the organization so that relatability I think is critically important in building a team. I’ve been there, I’ve done that and not saying that ‘I’ve been there, I’ve done that’ is acceptable to helping coach someone, but it just gives a viewpoint or a perspective that I think is different and unique as you build your team.

If you have good leadership and a good recruiting department and you’re continuing to hire, we’ve been really lucky and we found really good professionals during COVID. We’ve hired a ton of people remotely. It’s the confidence that you have within your leadership team and the framework that you work from. If you believe in the team that you’re building and the business principles that you’re building them from, I don’t think remote is as limited as one would think. One of these days, we’re all going to get back together, we’re going to have a team event, we’re going to be able to go do a barbecue, we’re going to be able to go to a Nats game. We’re going to be able to do those things, in the interim, we’re going to do some not-so-fun things to make sure everybody continues to be in alignment. But I think you’ve got to still keep building your team as if you would if everybody’s in the office.

Fred Diamond: Will, I want to recognize that Carahsoft is an IES Premier Sales Employer, congratulations. They’re great places to work for sales organizations. I know the 2021 virtual Award Event that we had, Harrison came and got that plaque. Hopefully, one day it’ll be – if it’s not in his house – on your nice mantle with the thousands of other awards that Carahsoft has been given over the years. Will, I want to thank you so much, I want to thank Mary Lange from your PR team for getting you on today’s podcast and webcast.

I just want to acknowledge you and the team at Carahsoft for the great work you’ve done in helping vendors and customers and other types of partners achieve their goals. Not just achieve their goals, but really satisfy the customer. There’s a deep commitment that your firm has to ensuring that partners have a great partner to work with in Carahsoft and that your government customers have a great supplier and vendor to ensure that they get the solutions they need so they can do a lot of the stuff that you talked about. Getting social security checks out the door, keeping us safe, understanding the cyber risks that may be facing people. Kudos to Craig, you and the team and Mary for all the great work that you’ve done and thank you again for your support of the Institute for Excellence in Sales.

Will, give us one final action step. You’ve given us a lot of great ideas, things we can do to take our sales career to the next level. Give us one specific action step that our listeners can take right now to take their sales career to the next level.

Will Jones: Fred, it’s been a real pleasure. I’ve had a blast, thank you. The one thing I’ll leave everybody with is I think during this time, we’re all cooped up in our houses too much, we’re not out enough. I think it’s a perfect time to reassess your sphere of influence in your job, what you’re doing, who you’re influencing, who you’re interacting with. Looking at that and seeing where you can do better things, do better work, interact with more people. In our space, we’re lucky to be supporting who we’re supporting and I think broadening your sphere of influence is really important. I would leave that with the audience today.

Fred Diamond: It’s definitely a great time to reconnect and let people know what you’re up to and see how they’re doing. Basically, reach out. We talked about empathy a lot over the last couple of years. At our next live event on November 5th, Arnold Sanow, “The Get-Along Guy” is going to be talking about building those relationships right now as we hopefully come out of COVID and start looking to reconnect. Will Jones, thank you so much. Everybody who watched today’s webcast and listened to today’s podcast, thank you as well.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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