Public Sector Selling – Part 2 |Winning

Winning RFPs with Teamwork

In the second post on Public Sector Sales, Oren and I continue our conversation, discussing his amazing record on blind RFPs and the shift in perspective that has made all the difference in his approach to selling software.

Prospecting is a little different in the public sector because the opportunities are public and you effectively decide which ones are the best fit for your product and company. It shifts the focus from cold-calling to winning deals. As we all know winning RFPs is no easy thing. So how does Oren win blind RFPs? “When you find an RFP it is sometimes biased towards the incumbent. It sounds like a simple concept—just get ahead of the competition and influence the RFP. The problem is that you could spend three years working with the customer to shape the RFP before it comes out (if it ever does), but I’d rather spend my time winning the business rather than getting into the account.”

I like the public sector, there’s so much oversight in the buying process. Even if you have a vendor mucking around, there’s only a limited amount of influence a vendor can have over a deal.

He continues, “I like the public sector, there’s so much oversight in the buying process. Even if you have a vendor mucking around, there’s only a limited amount of influence a vendor can have over a deal. The real challenge is to standout. In an RFP where 10-15 proposals are submitted, you must personalize your communications and overload it with value to overcome what other vendors are trying to do to upset the deal. I work the deal.”

“You have to personalize and tailor every piece of communication that goes out to the customer. You have to add value to every element of communication. Sharing an article on LinkedIn is not adding value. You have to tell the customer they’re wrong when they are. You need to show the customer a different way of doing things. Tell them about what they should’ve asked. Talk to them about risk. Show them ‘you get them’, and show them ‘the future state’. That’s how you add value,” he says.

“RFP deals are commoditized—most people could care less who the vendor is. Pundits will tell you to walk away from an RFP that you didn’t help the customer write. But, the reality is I’m seeing very little vendor bias in blind RFPs, and in fact, I’m winning blind RFPs all the time,” he says. Oren’s approach definitely turns conventional wisdom on RFPs on its head.

My win rate on blind RFPs is closer to 30% and the best part is the deals are coming to me!

He continues, “when I talk to the people in procurement, and I ask them if they talked to a vendor before putting out an RFP, they usually say ‘no.’ In fact, they usually say ‘we just put it out.’ They don’t have time to talk to people. Most companies walk away from the public sector and RFPs because the close rate is so bad. Sure, if you have a bad process you are looking at a 5% win probability. My win rate on blind RFPs is closer to 30% and the best part is the deals are coming to me!”

So how does Oren win one out of every three RFPs he responds to? “The way to win deals is to take everything you know about the customer and work it into the RFP, but you also need to add a lot more info than what they’ve asked for in the RFP. The customer won’t know to ask about everything, so you need to guide them to your way of thinking. I add a section called: ‘Here’s What You Need to Know’, and it covers off what they didn’t ask but really should have. It all goes back to communication. Being a good listener is critical but you need to apply what you have heard in your RFP response.”

He continues, “For a recent RFP submission we created a section called ‘Your Success Criteria’. In it, we showed the customer what they are currently doing, and showed them a vision of where they could be. The customer didn’t ask for this, so we had to make it up, but the information we included was based on our company’s experience with similar customers. We had the confidence to say, ‘you’re trying to do this and you’re struggling because of this, this and that,’ and everything tied back to strong product proof points.”

I’m in the replacement business—my prospects already have a product in place—just not mine!

When responding to RFPs you have to put your thinking cap on and find a way to differentiate yourself from your competitor’s product. Oren says, “you have to stand out. You have to deliver something they didn’t ask for. You have to play to your strengths. You need to shape the conversation. Ask yourself, ‘how I can bring insight to the customer?’ When I write an RFP response I’m imaging the purchasing committee nodding their heads when they read my proposal. Even if the customer disagrees, if they nod then they’ll remember me.”

Oren discovered a truth that I believe applies to any type of selling, and like most truths, it’s brilliantly simple. So what is it? He explains, “I’m in the replacement business—my prospects already have a product in place—just not mine! When I realized this it was transformational. There are very few instances where what you’re selling to someone is a new product that addresses a previously unknown challenge. Nine times out of ten the customer already has something that solves the problem. My job as a sales rep is to convince customers that it’s worth replacing their current tool with mine.”

He continues, “that’s a major hassle for any organization. In order for me to win a new customer, that customer has to stop using my competitor’s product. To overcome replacement inertia I need to be able to stand out; I have to connect. I’m always thinking, ‘what can I say that will make them remember me?’ Ten other people are going to come in and try to win the deal but how will they stand out enough for the customer to start thinking about a new possibility? People tend to ignore that.

When startups try to hire sales superstars they need to think about what makes that person a superstar.

“Startups think they’re going to win customers by their ‘innovation’ but from the buyer’s perspective, it’s an incremental gain, because of the costs of switching to a new solution, and the risk involved in switching. In the public sector, it’s painful to make a change. You see startups advertising for sales reps with skills in finding or developing new markets, or introducing new products to the market etc., but the reality is that their product isn’t new in the way they think it is. It may be better but it’s not necessarily new. You deploy a different strategy when you realize you’re in the replacement business.”

“Being so focused on innovation and product, startups don’t do well in my environment, because they are too focused on the deal, and they’re blindsided by the post-deal stuff that more established companies bring to the table to make that transition more pleasant and much less risky: account management, support structures, customer success, etc. This something that is very hard to do when you’re a cash-strapped startup or are focused on rapid growth. From a buyer’s perspective, you may have a great looking solution, but if you don’t have customer service, account management, and established risk mitigation processes, why would I bet my career on your company?”

When it comes to startups, a lot of founders will rely on their advisors and network to find a superstar sales rep. Oren asks a good question that every founder should think about. “When startups try to hire sales superstars they need to think about what makes that person a superstar. Are they an A-Type personality or are they successful because they’re great communicators?”

I use the Challenger sales methodology. Once you get it, it revolutionizes your thought process.

Challenger Sales ModelOren offers some advice that could benefit startup sales teams and it’s again quite simple. Be confident in how you handle the customer. It requires great communication skills. “I use the Challenger sales methodology. Once you get it, it revolutionizes your thought process.” He recalls a recent customer interaction that demonstrates how the model can work to your advantage.

“A prospect we’re working on an RFP with reached out with a request for us to present a deep-dive product demo. They gave us three hours to do the demo and answer questions. When I reviewed the two-page request of use cases to demo I quickly realized that there was no way we could get through all the use cases in just three hours. We would run out of time.”

He continues, “So now I have a problem. The customer is asking for something, but they’re not giving me enough time. If I just show up and do what the customer wants we would fail. We’d have to skip over things but what if the one thing we end up not showing them is the thing they really wanted to see? I told the customer that they didn’t allocate enough time for our demo and offered a solution: either we spend two days to conduct a deep-dive demo (at no cost to them) or we have to edit the list of requests.”

Think about the messaging you get from most sales experts. You get lots of advice on the mechanics of the sales process, but you what you rarely get is training in the skills you need as an individual in order to follow through on those strategies.

What Oren did next is a perfect application of the Challenge model, “I reached out to one of our customers who had requested a similar deep-dive demo in the past, and with their permission sent our prospect their contact info. The idea is to have one customer educate the other about the best way to buy. The result? Our prospect is now reworking the agenda for us to give us the time to address all their requirements.“

Oren could have said ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the customer, but instead he took the opportunity to teach his customer something new (that the request was impossible to achieve given their experience); added value to the process by offering to do a two-day workshop at no cost, and he injected a reference into the process. He took control of the conversation and guided the customer to a mutually beneficial outcome.

He concludes, “I happen to know that our prospect sent the original demo invite out to four other vendors. If the other folks didn’t push back then they’re going to fail. This is an example of communications skills that can be taught, but it’s completely ignored in most sales organizations. Think about the messaging you get from most sales experts. You get lots of advice on the mechanics of the sales process, but you what you rarely get is training in the skills you need as an individual in order to follow through on those strategies.”

There’s a lot to unpack in Oren’s take on selling to the public sector. His understanding that you need to stand out in your customer’s mind is key, as is his point about easing a prospect’s solution replacement anxiety. Working together as a team and great inter-team and vendor-customer communication is also an important point that sometimes gets missed in the hustle to get a deal done.

Let me know what you think about this post. Did you find it interesting? Did it make you reconsider RFPs? I’m interested to hear about your public sector sales experience.





Selling to the Public Sector – Part 1

Winning RFPs in the Public Sector Requires Teamwork

I enjoy a good story as much as the next person, and people that work in sales generally have a lot of interesting stories to tell, perhaps only rivaled by sports-fishing tales about the one that got away.

Asking salespeople to talk about their process is a fascinating way to spend an hour or three. That may come as a surprise, especially if you haven’t had the opportunity to speak with a sales professional outside of a sales transaction.

In this post, I delve into public sector sales with my guest and former Hootsuite colleague Oren Friedman. Oren is a Public Sector Sales Leader at SumTotal, a Skillsoft Company. I first met Oren at Hootsuite. Not long after joining the startup I became a member of Hootsuite’s partner team. I quickly discovered Oren’s wicked sense of humour and sharp mind, and we quickly hit it off. We’ve both since gone on to new challenges, but we’ve been scheming ever since about ways that we can work together again.

I’ve lived through and survived the Dotcom bust, and the 2008 mini-bust as a sales guy. I think I get it.

Trained as a lawyer, Oren has been a sales rep since the late 90s. “I’ve lived through and survived the Dotcom bust and the 2008 mini-bust as a sales guy. I think I get it. If you’re a small company, I’ve been there. If you’re a Vancouver mid-size company of 100 people, I’ve been there. If you work for a large company, I’ve been there. I’ve worked for large stratified companies like TELUS and SAP and where I work now there are 2,500 people,” he says.

Oren currently sells to public sector customers, with a focus on education at the State and local government level, selling SaaS solutions valued from $100K into the millions. “I’m in field sales or outside sales. That’s a critical distinction,” says Oren. He continues: ”a lot of startups only do inside sales—the entire sales process: prospecting, demos, contracting—is done over the phone. In my case, it doesn’t work that way. I don’t think you can sell any product in the public sector that way. I need to have face-to-face time with the customer.”

Today, selling and buying is definitely a team effort.

For someone who’s sold for the past twenty years, Oren has seen a lot of change. “It’s tempting to talk about trends, but when I look back at my career the one thing that stands out is that as sellers we have way more information than we ever had in the past. Today we can use LinkedIn, Glassdoor, etc.; and customers have much more info too. But, the biggest change that I’ve understood is that today, today, selling and buying is definitely a team effort,” he said.

He continues, “from a sellers perspective, the sales process is a team exercise. For every active deal I have at least one sales engineer/solutions architect; a contracts/legal person; I usually have value engineers involved as well that help build the business case; I have proposal writers; I have marketing; I have professional services—it’s a team. It’s my deal, but if they fail then I fail. You never see these people mentioned as part of the sales process, but they’re critical to it.”


Oren is talking about an incredibly complex sales process, with a cycle that can stretch over 12-18 months, so how does this compare to the startup? “It’s the same for startups, but it’s not seen as the same thing. If I’m selling for a startup I can’t close a big deal without a team effort. I need the CEO or founders to get involved. I need marketing on board. I need engineering on-side,” he says.

We focus on the sales person as a hero. We forget that sales reps require different skills to be successful today.

What’s interesting about his perspective is that some sales managers and company executives don’t necessarily see sales as a team effort. “We focus on the salesperson as a hero,” he says. “We forget that sales reps require different skills to be successful today. How do I get visibility to what my other team members are doing? They’re busy so how do I get them interested in helping me?”

“If you have terrible interpersonal communications skills; if you don’t have strong leadership skills; if you’re not trained in team management—guess what? You’re going to have problems,” he says. “This speaks to a fundamental issue with sales training and sales methodologies—communication skills. When you’re inside sales rep you get a script. Fine. In my business it’s useless. When I’m meeting with a customer I have to be in the moment. I have to connect and make a real connection at that point in time. I then need to relate the customer’s requirements back to my team. It requires great communication skills. Nobody is teaching communications skills.”

Communication skills is a huge gap.

Thinking about hiring practices Oren believes that, “communication skills is a huge gap. From a founders’ perspective, they read a book on how to set up a sales org; they bring in consultants to set up the methodology; and marketing pushes out the messaging; but, when the sales rep connects with the customer, it all fails if the rep can’t connect with the customer.”

He continues, “you end up with salespeople that know a product’s features but don’t necessarily know how to communicate value to the customer. They are taught what to communicate, but often times, they’re not capable of executing because they’ve not been shown how to do that. The people doing the hiring aren’t necessarily screening for communication ability.”

It used to be that having good communication skills meant being comfortable speaking in front of people, but listening is an equally important part of communication. Processing, analyzing and learning from what you’ve heard enables you to provide value to your customers.

It was in the early days of Hootsuite, when the company was still based in Vancouver’s Railtown, that Oren spoke to the sales team about his technique for using LinkedIn to build relationships with prospects and customers. His talk lasted about 20 minutes, and by the end of it, he had demonstrated how to weaponize the business-oriented social network.

1024px-LinkedIn_Logo.svgHis LinkedIn techniques weren’t magical, but by sharing his process, which is methodic and disciplined, he showed how real connections could be made with customers. Much of what he talked about that day was is what you’ll discover when reading about social selling from so-called “experts”, but he presented it without all the hype and distraction of self-promotion.

At a recent SumTotal internal sales team conference, Oren again presented a talk about his methodology for winning Public Sector deals with personalized RFPs. He’s had great success in winning RFPs, killing his quota in the process, so naturally, sales management is interested to know what the secret is to his success.

Nobody talks about the need to personalize an RFP response.

“Buyers, especially in the public sector, make all decisions by committee and those decisions are driven by consensus. It’s also similar for large enterprise. You need to influence a team of people with divergent interests. You have to have the patience to differentiate every conversation and every element of an RFP response to address the individual, personalizing it for that member of the team. If I’m speaking with a technical person or if I’m talking to a CFO I can’t have the same conversation but a lot of reps do, and they take a similar approach when writing an RFP response.”

Sales Management wants to understand why Oren is successful when other’s are struggling. He says, “If I look at my colleagues, the ones that are struggling for success, and I take out of consideration the level of effort they’re putting into their activity, it all comes down to their ability to communicate. The ones that struggle the most can’t get meetings. Or, if they do get a meeting they can’t get close to closing the deal because they can’t connect with the customer. They don’t stand out, they don’t connect emotionally with the buying team, and they don’t adapt their message. In most cases, it’s not even ‘their’ message that they’re delivering, buyers can tell when it’s not authentic.”

“Likewise, it has huge implications on how you design communication systems in a company. If your sales team doesn’t know how to communicate you’re going to lose deals.” He continues, “internal communication issues can cost you deals–especially if you need to make changes in product and your product team doesn’t understand what it is you are asking of them.”

Next week will feature Part 2 of our interview, where Oren and I discuss his amazing track record on blind RFPs and an interesting shift in perspective that changed how he sells software.