To learn Vista IT Group’s products, Jeff Stevens quizzed himself with flashcards while he and his wife were out together. Courtesy Vista IT Group
Jeff Stevens, president and CEO of the rapidly growing technology supplier Vista IT Group, said he wants to keep his company on a steep growth curve, and part of his strategy is instilling in his sales staff a level of technical proficiency above the industry standard.
Stevens walked into the technology space at 26 years old. Previously, he had worked for five years as a claims adjustor at Foremost Insurance Agency, which coincidentally is right next to Vista’s headquarters at 5282 East Paris Ave. SE, in Kentwood.
By the time Stevens graduated college in 1991, a shallow recession had hit. Even though he wasn’t sure what career field he wanted to get into, he knew Foremost was a major employer at the time.
After working five years in the insurance sector as a claims processor and later district manager, however, Stevens realized it was a field he didn’t want to be in.
“It wasn’t exciting to me,” he said. “The pace and the entrepreneurial spirit in a very dry, mature industry — in my opinion — don’t necessarily appeal to me.”
Stevens also learned big companies can be very hard to advance in beyond the management level. The same is even more so in the insurance world, he said, pointing to people he had worked alongside who had been in management positions for 15 to 20 years and had no intention of moving.
Even though his performance reviews showed he’d gone above and beyond, his raises didn’t. No matter how far he exceeded his peers, working for a $500-million company meant he was just another gray cubicle to his employers.
“Everything they gave me in terms of performance metrics, I wanted to exceed them. I wanted to be better than what their expectations are,” he said. “Whatever positions I moved around to … I consistently did that, but after a couple years, what I realized was I wasn’t getting rewarded for the amount of work I put in.”
Working for a smaller, more laterally structured company, however, gave Stevens the opportunity to know the leadership more quickly.
Stevens came on board to Vista as an account manager in 1996 back when the company was known as Great Lakes Computer. Understandably, coming from an insurance background with no experience in tech, Stevens said he had to learn about the product he was selling the hard way.
“It was a relatively small business — maybe 15 — I was one of four salespeople,” he said. “So, you really had to take the onus on yourself and immerse yourself in the technology space.”
Stevens admitted — coming in as a 26-yard-old sales rep — he was scared to make calls to companies about a product he didn’t know anything about. So outside of work, he would spend as much time as he could with his nose buried in manuals and would even quiz himself with flashcards while he and his wife were out together.
“This was long before the internet made its presence known, and YouTube and links to manufacturing websites where you can educate yourself just didn’t exist at the time,” Stevens said. “I’d go to the library and open up old microfiche files and go into specs that at the time were kind of Greek to me.”
But as Stevens continued to study and converse with customers, the information gradually became second nature to him.
“It was a pretty steep learning curve,” he said, “but once you learn the mechanics and the basics of the technology, you just got to keep up with the changes that happen every couple of years.”
And Stevens is fully confident he is able to stay relevant as technology evolves, even when communicating with business clients who may be slow to adapt. He credited his quality of leadership to the various positions he has held in the company.
“I was a rep on that floor 20 years ago,” he said. “I was a team leader 15 years ago. I was a manager 10. I was a VP of sales five … I guess one of the things that the organization appreciates about having a leader like myself here is that I’ve sat in their shoes … I’ve done everything they’ve done.”
During his 20-plus years at Vista, Stevens also has managed a few of his own enterprise accounts and sold several millions of dollars worth of equipment locally and across the U.S.
Even as president of Vista, he still is passionate about being involved in the sales staff and helping them, not just in their careers, but also as they engage strategically with new prospects. He said most new sales reps can gain a client’s attention but don’t know how to convince the client to switch suppliers.
“We kind of use the metaphor, once they catch the bus, they don’t necessarily know what to do with it,” Stevens said. “And that’s where it gets fun for me.”
Because he has worked in sales for so long, he’s noticed many of the same client objections tend to repeat themselves over time. One of the biggest obstacles to hook a client, he said, was change.
“‘Why would I go away from the people that I’m working with today and potentially entertain bringing on a new vendor?’ That’s probably one of the biggest ones,” Stevens said. “And it’s not because they’re not interested … People just don’t have time.”
Unfortunately, the technology space is saturated with salespeople, both good and bad, inundating IT professionals with solicitations, he said, and if professionals entertained every knock on their door, they wouldn’t have the time to do their jobs.
To set Vista apart in a torrent of sales calls, Stevens instills the same level of technical acumen in his sales staff that he expected of himself when he first entered the company. Comparing the salesperson in any other technology supplier to a “quarterback,” Stevens said it’s usually the person’s job to pull together all the organization’s expertise, even sometimes going so far as to pull in the technology manufacturer to help round out the conversation.
“Our organization is capable of doing all that, too,” he said. “But one of the biggest differentiators is our sales people are so technically proficient that they’re able to engage with the customer on a technical level that really isn’t commonly found out in the marketplace.”
Now, Stevens encourages his salespeople, if they are truly motivated to be proficient with the product, to cross train with the engineers. Part of Vista’s culture puts the expectation on sales to be able to engage the client at about 70 percent technical proficiency, he added.
“When you hit that 30 percent, then you pull in all the resources you need to round out the conversation that will typically go very deep,” he said.
Conversations don’t always have to be so complex, and Vista also can streamline transactions by eliminating complexity, Stevens said. If a client organization already knows what it wants, then the sales rep’s only responsibility is to set the price and potentially work with the customer on a more desirable alternative.
“The bigger, more complex sales take time to evolve,” he said, “but if you take the complex sales off the table, 60 percent of what (customers) want is to upgrade what they already have, so let’s make that process real easy, let’s make it real efficient and that’s where a lot of our value comes on a day-to-day basis.”
Stevens said Vista is now on track to earn $40 million in revenue and grow 25 percent by the end of 2018, compared to 33 percent growth in 2017. His goal for 2019, he said, was to shoot for 15 to 20 percent growth.