4 keys to thriving in today's federal sales environment

In June, I was honored to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Institute for Excellence in Sales & Business Development (IES&BD) – which is really just a fancy way of saying that I have an amazing team that makes me look good and that I’ve been in the industry for a really long time. Thirty-plus years in federal technology sales and engineering to be exact, during which time I’ve seen federal IT spending rise, fall, and rise again.

Today, agency budgets are undeniably down from recent levels, but the fact is that even when the federal IT pie shrinks, it is still a very, very large pie with plenty of opportunities for vendors that are efficient in adapting to the changing sales climate. And while much has changed over the years in this industry, there are some enduring principles for selling and supporting the mission of our agency customers.

Partner Sales Staff Smartly

Years ago, it was not uncommon for contractors and IT vendors to hire recent college grads as outside sales reps. But it is a different story for those who recently earned their college degrees. Today, the IT workforce is more seasoned, so those new to the workforce often first gain knowledge and experience in other roles within the organization – whether it is as a pre-sales engineer, inside sales rep, or in marketing—in order to learn the skills required to be an outside sales professional.

Veteran sales leaders understand how to maneuver through the public sector system and where to focus efforts. For example, if the U.S. Army is a desired customer, what locations should you pursue? Which programs? What is the best path to Intel accounts? There isn’t a guidebook on how to sell to the FBI; this is a skillset developed over time.

Your entire team however cannot be made up of veteran sales leaders. The key is to team individuals together that will be complementary and enable industry experience to be passed on. If we bring someone on board who lacks specific account knowledge, we team that person with someone more seasoned.

Winning happens between purchase orders

In my decades of time leading federal sales teams, I have found that a culture of appreciation leads to success. Accolades are often tied to how much someone sold, but in fact a tremendous amount of effort and time goes into the sales process – from outside sales reps driving the “win” to others who ensure a positive customer experience so an agency buys from you again. It is critical to build a culture of appreciation, a “thank you” culture that lays the foundation for wins between purchase orders when so much needs to be done right.

Demand shifts to pre-validated bundles

An agency’s appetite to buy five different products from five different vendors and then try to determine how to stack all of them into an integrated solution is dwindling. Vendors recognize that agencies are increasingly eyeing the huge amount of time both up front and after deployment that can be saved with pre-validated solutions that come pre-bundled from multiple vendors working cooperatively. Selling pre-validated solutions is a different type of sale that requires greater collaboration with partners. The concept of teamwork extends to the partner community in order to deliver complete solutions to ultimately benefit the customer.

Shift learning curve from agency to vendor

There is a learning curve in effect as agencies move beyond acquisition of physical products to buying cloud services “by the drink.” We are witnessing a transition of CIOs and agency IT decision makers from being builders and operators to brokers of services, and sales teams must not underestimate how dramatic this shift can be.

Agencies are excellent at placing IT products on the GSA Schedule, but it is not as easy to follow this formula for buying a service. Agencies don’t tell a vendor how to build their computer; they understand the capabilities of the products. With cloud services, agencies need more of a comfort level by writing a spec on how the service should work, what features they want, what the latency should be, etc. This requires considerable effort compared to buying products, and the onus falls on the vendor community to alleviate this burden by thinking creatively about how to simplify the cloud services procurement process.

The best part about working in the public sector IT community is being able to support government agencies and the warfighter mission. Federal sales doesn’t work if the focus is simply on generating revenue at the expense of serving the customer. To truly win in the federal IT community, the focus should be on enabling the agency to succeed in their mission.

About the Author

Mark Weber is senior vice president of Americas Sales at NetApp.

Reader Comments

Wed, Jul 8, 2015 Ray Kane

Mark, Well stated. By your remarks, it's evident you have outstanding experience.Best Regards Ray

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