Old vendor practices disappearing

During a recent discussion, officials from Oracle Corp. raised the point of how they’ve revamped the way in which they handle their current customers.

Essentially, Oracle designates a point person to “babysit” an account. The difference is this person is neither expected, nor even has the mandate, to sell. They act as the face of Oracle, providing news, passing along information on meetings and simply keep in touch. Most other vendors assign salespeople – their eyes and ears firmly dedicated to boosting commissions – to the task.

When I heard this, two things jumped out at me: one is that, at least according to Oracle, no other major software vendor is doing this, despite the obvious benefits of backing off the hard sell once a company has already committed dollars. The second is that even Oracle’s arrangement is quite new.

Good on Oracle for trying to change the game. But too bad for the IT community for not forcing it, and all other equipment suppliers, to move more quickly. A recent report, written about in more detail in this issue on page 20, concludes that software vendors do a poor job of selling their wares. Essentially, it found that most sales reps are far more interested in telling you about what the product does as opposed to what it can do to help you.

To his credit, a senior executive from IBI admitted to us that vendors don’t have the best track record when it comes to pleasing customers. “We tell the reps, ‘Customers don’t buy because they are made to understand, but because they feel understood,'” he said.

True enough. But the fact that mature, blue chip companies have to teach this lesson to their reps in 2004 is not just a comment on the rigidity of the vendor community mindset, but also on its compliant customers as well.

I recently went shopping for a car, and say what you will about the ruthlessness of that particular trade, automakers know their customers. Each maker has a range of models, and each model contains several sub-models, from basic to souped-up. They do so not because they wish to show-off the prowess of engineers at head office, but because customers have demanded it.

At its heart, it’s about listening. And it’s becoming clear that only after some very hard lessons – the spending slowdown, increasing end-user education, tighter competition – are IT suppliers now willing to listen. It’s taken longer, and no one can accuse the IT community (at least here in Canada), of being overly vocal when it comes to complaining, but the industry is becoming more akin to other, more consumer- or commodity-focused markets everyday.

Don’t let this accumulated effort go to waste. Remember that the next time a rep gives you the sales-pamphlet pitch. Today, more than ever, there’s a sales rep waiting in the wings who isn’t there to talk. They’re there to listen.

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