I recently had the pleasure of hosting Jeff White, Chief Revenue Officer of Extreme Networks, on the SBI Podcast. Extreme Networks is a $580 million provider of network hardware, software, and infrastructure services.
The subject of our conversation was designing a new sales strategy within the first 90 days of a new job. After 17 years at Cisco, Jeff just recently joined Extreme and wasted no time in designing a new sales strategy.
You can listen to the interview here.
By listening to this podcast, you will learn how to:
- Perform a sales and marketing assessment correctly.
- Work collaboratively with the CEO, and the executive peers, as the “new guy.“
- Get off to a fast start.
If you are a newly appointed head of sales, and need advice on how to have success early, listen to this podcast.
Speaker: Welcome to the SBI Podcast, offering CEOs, sales and marketing leaders ideas to make the number.
Greg Alexander: Hello everybody, this is Greg Alexander, CEO of Sales Benchmark Index and welcome to SBI’s podcast. Joining me today is Jeff White. Jeff leads the sales and marketing efforts as the chief revenue officer at Extreme Networks, who generates about 580 million dollars in revenue by providing network infrastructure equipment, software and services. Prior to joining Extreme, Jeff spent 17 years at Cisco where he lead teams in India and APJ, which sounds like a fun assignment, I’m sure we’ll get into that.
Jeff, welcome to the show.
Jeff White: Thanks Greg, it’s nice to be here.
Greg Alexander: Jeff at this point, to try and open up with some humor, we always ask somebody to give us a little fun fact. So tell us something about yourself that nobody knows.
Jeff White: A fun fact. I’ve been doing this thing by the numbers recently and the one that keeps coming up, of course, is that I have five children and we’ve lived in four different countries across the globe and I had a set of experiences doing that and an incredible wife, obviously, as the backbone of all of that. A big part of who I am and a big part of why I do what I do and an important part of my life when I’m not, of course, doing things like this.
Greg Alexander: Five kids all over the world.
Jeff White: Yeah, the first reaction generally is I get asked if I’m Mormon and the answer to that is no.
Greg Alexander: I was going to ask if you were Catholic, but what’s the difference.
Jeff White: I have lots of Mormon friends actually, but it just so happens that I’m Catholic so that’s the follow-up question. So, yes I am.
Greg Alexander: That’s great. Thanks for sharing that. Fun fact about me that I tell people and they laugh about, which I don’t think you know, I married a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader.
Jeff White: Well that sounds like a fun fact for sure.
Greg Alexander: It is. We’ve been married twenty years. She was during the Jimmy Johnson era and we had a chance to go to Super Bowls and that was a lot of fun.
Alright. So today we’re going to talk about sales strategy and I thought you would be a great person to discuss this with because you’ve been on the job there at Extreme for just about two months, and one of the very first things you did, almost immediately for that matter, was to engage an external firm – our firm in this case – to perform a sales and marketing assessment, which is rare. Normally folks who just took a new job like this one want to get a lay of the land on their own for a period of time and then if they do engage a firm like ours, its maybe six to nine months down the road.
But you decided to do it right away. So I thought I’d start out by asking you what went behind that thought.
Jeff White: You mean besides the fact that you guys are great guys?
Greg Alexander: Well that goes without saying.
Jeff White: Well for me, and that time frame is probably about right, that six month time frame, because I’d really known Extreme Networks for a long time. Obviously I’ve been in the industry, I’ve competed against them. I’ve seen them go through a lot of transitions. I’ve known various CEOs that have run Extreme and have a pretty intimate knowledge and understanding of the business.
So for me I was seeing symptoms of a larger problem that the company had and coming into this I had the luxury of having a long lead in to the role. I had the opportunity to do a lot of homework before coming into the company. I had an opportunity to talk to people in the industry. I talked to some analysts, I talked to some employees before I even stepped into the job on day one. So I had a pretty good set of working hypotheses around what some of the challenges were. That Extreme was dealing with and really boiled down to a lack of clarity around a sales strategy
Some of the symptoms that you could see were not a lot of differentiation in terms of the go to market. You were seeing really kind of an outside in approach to how they were selling, it was more about the product than it was about the customer and understanding the customer’s needs and how the customer buys and, just even identifying things like an ideal customer profile.
And then not a strong connection to the product side of the house as well. While there’s some great, great innovation that’s being driven out of the engineering side, what we were missing was really a very strong connection on the go to market.
For me it was very obvious just in the first few weeks in the role that that’s what I needed to go address and that there was a lot of transformative work that needed to be done. And I hate to use that word because it’s so overused, but it was very obvious to me that there was some science that needed to be applied to the strategy and that there’s a lot of heavy lifting to that. I wanted to accelerate that and leverage a company like yours to help me with that acceleration based on my experiences with you guys and what I had seen you do with other companies.
Greg Alexander: Okay, very good. So it obviously helps you that you knew the company extremely well and you knew coming in what the big issues were.
Jeff White: So for me it was a benefit. It was a luxury in that regard and it allowed me to move that much faster.
Greg Alexander: Let’s talk a little bit about engaging with engineering and product. Sometimes sales leaders don’t build the greatest relationship there and as a result of that engineering is building solutions based on what product management is telling them that they need. And at times, not always, but sometimes the voice of the customer is missing from that equation. And the sales team, who is engaging with the customer most often, might add value to that conversation.
What’s your approach to reach across the aisle and have a dialogue with your product folks?
Jeff White: I will tell you first of all, I’m very lucky. There are a number of folks within the engineering organization including the leader that, while I didn’t know him well before, I knew of him, knew of his reputation and, likewise, he knew me coming from Cisco. Cisco being obviously a very large company, 75,000 and plus employees. But he had retired for a period of time and came out of retirement. So we knew each other and we spent quite of bit of time together actually before I decided to accept the role I actually flew and met with Ed Carney a couple of times and sat down with him. Because really that dynamic and that relationship I knew was going to be really the key to my success going forward and the company’s success going forward.
I think Ed really acknowledged out of the shoot that there was not always complete alignment between what his teams were developing and what we were prioritizing in our go to market. For me getting that dynamic right really out of the gate was really important. It was about sitting down and listening to him and the dynamic that he brought and me sharing a perspective and a hypothesis on how I view us growing the business and how I view us working together in a collaborative way.
I think it’s really easy for companies to fall into the trap of being so focused on making the number and so near term focused that you – some of those muscles that you used to really understand the long term dynamics of your business and you customers start to atrophy a bit. And I think there were some elements of that that were clearly acknowledged and I think Ed understood that and saw that. I think it made him very uncomfortable because he wasn’t even 100 percent sure that what he was developing was exactly what was needed for the customers that we were developing it for.
So he’s got some incredible folks that had been filling the gap on that but really what we needed was for sales to take much more responsibility and leading that conversations. And getting beyond just the week, month quarter and thinking much longer term in terms of how we drive the business overall.
For me and him it was philosophical alignment really kind of coming out of the gate and saying this is what we’ve got to do. This is the dynamics of how we have to change the internal dialogue and discussion. This is where we have to stand up and show that as two leaders we’re in alignment and that there’s bi-directional commitment to each other here around making this successful. I think that’s the dynamic for me certainly early on, that Ed and I have been able to develop that relationship based on trust. There’s mutual respect there. I understand very clearly what I’ve got to go do in terms of leading that conversation with our customers and our partners. And in feeding that back into the organization. Help prioritize where we focus our resources. Ultimately I believe that will be the key to our success going forward.
Greg Alexander: We need to take a quick break, so we’ll be right back to you.
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Greg Alexander: Welcome back everybody, let’s continue our conversation.
One area I want to explore with you, is you have both sales and marketing, thus the title Chief Revenue Officer. In the early 90s when I started my career, that’s just the way it was. There was a VP of Sales and Marketing and then we got into this period of time where those two roles were separated and we got super specialized in our jobs. I’m starting to see those two roles come back together.
You mentioned the word alignment, which is such a critical term. Does it make it easier for you to have alignment with the product organization? Because you have both marketing and sales? Does that aid in that?
Jeff White: I think it does because if you take a look at the dynamics of our business, first of all the industry has changed tremendously. I’ve been in the industry almost 25 years in the IT domain. And how customers buy, the sophistication of our customers has changed dramatically. We’re scrambling to stay ahead of our customers in many regards because there’s so much information that’s out there. There’s so much that they can have access to, not only about your own product and capabilities, but your competitors as well. And if you take a look, there’s a lot of statistics out there. I’ve seen as high as 2/3 of customer purchases are made even before they talk to a sales rep.
So if you think about that, and you think about the role that marketing plays in terms of shaping buyer behavior, the role of social media, the role of targeted advertising to a set of buyers, marketing really should be the tip of the spear in terms of your sales strategy.
I think they’ve got to be an important part of that market sensing element that is part of that full feedback loop that you bring into the engineering side of the house. So for me I think it’s more important than ever that there’s synchronicity between sales and marketing, but also that that’s being leveraged back into the engineering side of the house.
Greg Alexander: I agree with you and I’m hoping that this is a trend that continues. I hope more CRO positions are created and they merge into one leader, marketing and sales. We’ll see if that trend continues but I agree.
Jeff White: Although I will give you a bit of a funny tid-bit. I had a lot of friends who reached out to me after they saw my posting on LinkedIn and they asked me if Chief Revenue Officer meant that I was working for the IRS now collecting taxes.
Greg Alexander: Maybe we need a better title. Maybe Chief Revenue Officer isn’t the right title.
Jeff White: You know, if it gets people talking, I think it’s good.
Greg Alexander: Yeah, that’s true. So stay on this topic of alignment for a second. The theory on alignment is very basic here. It’s you have a corporate strategy. So you’re really going to have product differentiation, you’re going to win that way. You have customer intimacy, so you know your customers better than your competitors and you have better relationships, you’re going to win that way. Or you have price leadership, so you can manufacture your products for less.
And normally the great success stories, in our country any way, are one organization that picked one of those and did it really well. So you have this corporate strategy and that gets cascaded down to the product strategy. If you’re going to have a product differentiation strategy you’re going to invest heavily in R and D and you’re going to come out with truly differentiated products. And then that gets cascaded down to marketing, then sales, then operations, is normally how it flows.
Tell us a little bit about Extreme. What is Extreme’s corporate strategy and then how does that cascade to products, marketing and sales?
Jeff White: The corporate strategy, and it’s interesting because this is an area where this whole discussion around our sales transformation that we’ve been embarking on, has also forced us to go back and reevaluate our corporate strategy as well. And to just re-find, if you will, the elements of our strategy that we believe are the most important. We do think, first of all, the heritage of Extreme is one of a product innovator. They, in the very early days of the internet, were providing some very highly innovative Ethernet switching platforms, highly dense platforms that were highly differentiated.
That, over time, started to deteriorate. One, as competitors started to catch up, technology can leap frog, but also as you start to lose sight of the market presence and who your ideal customers are and the target markets that you’re going to go after and the buyers that you’re going to focus on, your start to get diluted in your focus. And over time your strategy starts to become a bit diluted.
So it’s forced us to come back in and really sharpen, our viewpoints on that. We clearly want to be a product innovator. We want to differentiate identifying markets and customers that we want to serve. We want to transform those markets with our customers. We want to provide differentiation in terms of experiences for those customers through our products and our services.
It’s been this very interesting byproduct of coming in and forcing a discussion across the executive team around what we’ve got to go do from a sales and marketing standpoint to say, no look, we have experienced some dilution, we have experienced some commoditized in our business. We have to understand why we got there and how we got there and what we got to go do upstream, cause sales and marketing is the tail, that’s wagging the dog in this case, we got to get much more crisp on our sales strategy approach.
For us it’s forced us to come back and say absolutely, definitively this is what we’ve got to go do, now let’s be much more crisp around the other dynamics of our strategy as well.
Does that make sense?
Greg Alexander: Yeah that makes great sense and I love the fact that the leaders in your company are open to the dialogue. You’re seeing some things and you’re asking everybody to rethink the corporate strategy and get everybody in alignment, which is great.
Jeff White: I got to tell you Greg, just on that point, that’s been the most exciting aspect of this role. Just really how the whole senior leadership is kind of rallied around, we’ve used the sales and marketing transformation, really as a pivot point for the company and for people to rally around what we’re doing. And it’s not just sales and marketing. This has been really a broad based engagement where we’ve taken, not only the engineering and services organization, but the support organization as well, and really got them excited about what it is that we’re doing, why we’re doing it, what it means for them and their organizations and, ultimately, of course what it means for us as a company in terms of our positing and how we service our customers and the partnerships that we’re developing.
It’s been really exciting and rewarding just in the first 45 days on the role just to see how people respond to that and rally around that.
Greg Alexander: Yeah, that is exciting. Sounds like a lot of open minded people, so that’s great. We’re going to take a quick break here to make our audience aware of a new offer.
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Greg Alexander: Welcome back everybody. Our topic today is sales strategy, let’s dive into that a little bit. So you have this corporate strategy around being a product innovator. When I hear that, normally when I look at an org chart for sales, as an example, I would see an organization that was built around product lines. So there might be 2,3,4,5 sales forces inside of a company and their area of specialty is around the product, versus maybe vertical industries or geography or hunter farmer or some alternatives. That can be difficult because that sometimes takes the selling expense up quite a bit. It’s the least efficient of all of them.
Are you planning on going to market with a product based sales force, are you going to have some hybrid? What’s your thoughts there?
Jeff White: It’s an excellent point because it fundamentally gets down back to an affordability factor. And you’re trying to manage within a financial envelop for a performer for your business. So in some respects you’re trying to back into that while also trying to service the strategy and your customers the way that they need to be serviced.
I do think that ultimately it’s going to result in a bit of a hybrid approach for us. There’s going to need to be some specialization around key markets, key verticals. But also some specialization around the technologies. And not just for the sake of the technology itself, but in terms of what the technology enables. So really thinking about enablement of our customer’s business models the way that they can monetize the technology, the way that they can service their customers differently.
It’s really along those dimensions as opposed to say, a wireless expert, what we’re really going to be focused on is how do we take analytics plus wireless in a stadium environment, as an example, and transform your experience as a fan of the NFL, you mentioned the Dallas Cowboys. As a fan of the NFL, when you’re sitting in your seat, so that you can have a differentiated experience while you’re there because many fans are surfing the net, they’re taking selfies, they’re uploading those selfies, they’re looking at various elements of other scores and other replays that happening. But it’s also an opportunity for those owners in this case, to monetize that and to offer a set of services and goods in that environment.
So what we’re going to be focused on is a set of subject matter experts that can have that discussion and dialogue so it’s not about the technology, but what the technology enables. So definitely a hybrid from that standpoint.
Greg Alexander: Subject matter experts, are these people that sit in marketing and are solution specialists? Are these sales people in the form of industry or solution overlays? What do you mean by subject matter experts?
Jeff White: It’s going to be a combination. We’re going to have some marketing and some sales, some go to market that will have that capability. And what I mean by that is we will have folks that will possess subject matter experts around verticals. Whether that be education, whether that be health care, whether that be stadiums and venues. But that understand the dynamics of those markets. Understand the care abouts. Understand buyer profiles as an example. Things that we can align to in terms of the solutions, that’s what we want to bring to bear.
But where you get the deep, intimate understanding of the customer, how the customer buys, what they care about so that we can align a selling process to that. And align a solution set and really everything that unfolds from that. Then we can align the organization around a set of outcomes that we’re trying to drive with those customers.
Greg Alexander: Okay. I get it.
Jeff White: I’m a firm believer Greg, just on that point and I’m sorry, that the day of generalist is a thing of the past. You have to be – in this day and age – you have to be a specialist in some regard. Whether that’s a specialist around your customer and their industry, and/or the technology and the business model enablement that it brings to bear. I think it’s the table stakes for differentiation these days.
Greg Alexander: I agree. Back to your stadium example, if I’m a stadium operator, I have set of problems I want you to solve for me. I really don’t care about your model, I care about my problem.
Jeff White: Absolutely. The first person we sold our stadium solution to was the chief digital officer of an NFL team. Imagine that. The chief digital officer who is trying to assess how they reach their fan base and service their fan base differently. And they were looking for solutions that would enable them to be able to turn on a set of services that would transform the customer experience before and after the game. That was our entrée into winning a number of NFL franchises for our stadium business.
Greg Alexander: That’s a great story. Maybe one of these days you’ll let me pipe in for your infrastructure into Tony Romo’s helmet and I can tell him not to throw an interception.
Jeff White: Hey he’s having a great year. You should be proud of him.
Greg Alexander: Okay we’re going to take a break here to make you aware of something I think you’ll get some value out of.
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Greg Alexander: Let’s dive back into the conversation. Let me pivot to the last area that I wanted to explore with you, which is whenever you execute a transformation – and I know you don’t like that word but we’ll use it loosely here – sometimes the internal sell, especially to the CEO, is harder than the external sell.
What advice would you give your peers in terms of educating the CEO on what needs to happen, getting his support, getting his funding, making sure – especially in a publicly traded company like you guys are, where you have investors that have expectations every 90 days – getting his patience.
How do you operate in that type of environment?
Jeff White: Well I think a couple things. First of all, one, I think, core to what you have to do in this role and advice that I would give to my peers is you have to communicate frequently to up, out and down. And it has to be something that is core to what you do every day. For me, first of all, I have a great relationship with our CEO. He has demonstrated a tremendous amount of trust in me and, of course, I take that trust very seriously.
What I’ve tried to help him through is, helping him to understand the trajectory that we can get the company on and the excitement that we can generate by doing that and what that ultimately means in terms of our share holders and for our employees. Now this process that we’re going through around this sales transformation, which is really just another way of saying hey we’re going to take some science to the way that we sell and we’re going to apply that ruthlessly in a framework that we execute again and we hold ourselves accountable to.
In this case, what the CEO wants to see is not only that long term view and trajectory and this thought of transformation is a nice one, but you tend to think of transformation in terms of quarters and even years, not in terms of 90 days. And the reality is that we do have a responsibility and a set of expectations that we have to manage with in the 90 days.
Part of what I’ve been doing is developing a short term revenue acceleration plan to, while we’re going through this transformation, make sure that we’re also delivering on our near term commitments. Because there are a number of areas where we can tighten up our sales process and tighten up our funnel management and tighten up the things that we do around big deals and how we rally the company around that. And just around campaigns that we can drive in the near term to have a near term impact. Because nobody is going to tolerate a long term view on transformation if your revenue is diving.
So you have to work both sides of this. You have to work the near term. You have to have some proximate goals. You have to have some quick wins because those wins boost the confidence, not only of the CEO but of your team and of the extended team of people that are looking at this and saying, can you really pull this dynamic off?
The advice I would give to my peers is you’re going to need to think about this along both of those dimensions. That there is the near term, the here and now that you’ve got to deliver on while you’re also working on this longer term journey around transforming the company around a different way that you go to market.
Greg Alexander: Nothing keeps an initiative top of mind more than winning right? So even if the wins are small it builds confidence.
My team that’s working with your team has told me that you guys value talent tremendously. So the story that you just told, if I was a top producing sales rep or sales manager, I would want to come to work for you. And the people that are listening to this podcast typically fall into that A player category because they take the time to develop themselves and listen to educational content like this.
So let me give you a chance to give the pitch. If I was a hot shot sales guy who could do 200 percent of quota every year, why would I want to come to work for Extreme?
Jeff White: Well I think first of all because we’re going to have a tremendous impact on the industry as a whole. We’re going to be very focused on the markets that we serve, the customers that we serve. We’re going to have an opportunity to uplift this company in a very significant way. Our stock is at a level right now where we can get appreciation, I think, unlike any other of our peers can realize.
I would tell you that from a talent perspective, I understand that people want autonomy, they want mastery, they want purpose. People want things that help them, enable them to do their job. I view my primary responsibility as enabling the success of my teams. And focusing on the things that are inhibiting that success, as well as providing them the tools and capabilities that allow them to accelerate that.
We are all about talent development. We are all about leadership development. It’s going to be a tremendous opportunity to rewrite the books on a company that has been around for a long time. They will be writing Harvard Business reviews on the transformation that was Extreme, the impact they had on the internet, after being in business for more than a decade, and the kind of transformational leadership that made that happen. And I think that that’s an exciting journey for people to go on and along the way they’ll be a lot of spoils that will come our way as a result of that.
Greg Alexander: I agree with everything that you just said. I would add also that you’re making investments to enable people’s success. It’s not just talk. We’re seeing it. And sometimes that’s half the battle. Sales people are willing to work hard but they need their company to support them and you guys clearly are doing that.
If there’s any superstars out there listening, you might go out to Extreme Networks website and see if there’s an opening in your town or city and give them a shot.
Jeff White: Absolutely. We’d love to have you.
Greg Alexander: Jeff that concludes our time. Thanks a bunch for making time in your extremely hectic schedule right now. Our audience members got a lot from your wisdom. So good luck in your journey and thanks again for your time on the show.
Jeff White: Absolutely Greg and I appreciate the time and the opportunity. Take care.
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