The fix is in: How to mend the broken IT sales process

For as long as CIOs have been around, one of their biggest frustrations has been with the IT sales process. Even vendors who have performed well for a customer can be a royal pain when it comes to sales. And in the end, the flawed sales process benefits no one. CIOs waste valuable time trying to figure out whether or not products will really do what vendors claim. And vendors waste time — and risk their reputations — trying to flog products that in some cases aren’t right for the job. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are many other aspects of the sales process that cause problems for both sides. It shouldn’t be like this. There’s got to be a better way.

In fact, there are a great many ‘better ways’ to streamline the sales process and make it less onerous for all involved. While not presuming to speak for all IT executives, this article identifies ten ways vendors can improve their approach to sales, making the process much less frustrating and time-consuming for CIOs and much more effective — and ultimately more profitable — for themselves.

Vendor & CIO feedback wanted!

Vendors and CIOs alike are encouraged to express their views on the ideas put forward in this article. We’d also like to hear more suggestions on how the IT sales process can be improved. Please send your responses to [email protected]

1 Be honest about the capability of your products

When the CIO puts out a list of requirements stating exactly what his company is looking for in the way of an IT solution, too many vendors respond saying, “yes, we can do that”, when in fact they can’t. To make matters worse, it’s usually about two hours into the sales presentation before the vendor admits that his solution can’t do what was specified. These vendors would earn more credibility with the CIO simply by saying “no, we can’t do it in the way that you’re suggesting but we’d like an opportunity to propose an alternative method.” That’s an effective way to deal with the fact that you don’t have what the CIO needs. Fudging on the ability of your solution to meet the stated requirements lowers the level of trust and leads to more flagrant abuses, such as the out and out bait-and-switch — knowing absolutely that the product can’t do the job but giving the CIO the answer she wants to hear, simply to get a foot in the door and hopefully sell her something else. That’s a surefire way to blacken your reputation and ensure that future phone calls go unanswered. This seems like common sense — but if it is, why do so few vendors embrace it?

2 Understand the CIO’s business

Vendors typically don’t spend enough time understanding the problem the CIO is trying to solve. Often the sales rep doesn’t even have the knowledge of the underlying business the CIO is in, and is unable to meaningfully contribute to a discussion of the problem at hand and its potential solutions. This doesn’t need to happen. Sales reps can learn a tremendous amount just by doing a little Web surfing. The rep shouldn’t knock on the CIO’s door without reading virtually all of the information on the customer’s Web site. By doing this, he will gain a basic understanding of the business the customer is in. And rather than asking a bunch of generalized questions, he can now talk to the CIO about specifics. For example, knowing that the customer does a lot of service work might lead to a discussion around how the company quotes on jobs. And lo and behold, the rep discovers a need in this area and is able to sell the customer a package for quoting on service. Unfortunately, these kinds of missed opportunities happen all the time, due to a simple lack of customer knowledge. So remember, if you really want to find out what’s going on under the covers, don’t ask questions like “What keeps you up at night?” Do your homework and learn as much as you can about the CIO’s business.

3 Don’t make ambiguous pitches

Sales pitches are often worded in such an ambiguous way that the CIO must spend far too much time figuring out what the vendor really has and what it can do. As a result, the whole industry moves much more slowly and less efficiently than it is capable of. If CIOs didn’t have to spend so much time and money on determining what products can really do, they could solve their problems more quickly and get on to new ones. That means buying a whole lot more products. So in the long run, ambiguous pitches are a detriment to all concerned. They needlessly lengthen the sales cycle, cause both sides to consume far more resources than necessary, and they significantly reduce the overall IT spend.

4 School your reps in business fundamentals

CIOs get asked a lot of questions, especially by younger reps. Can I have some of your time? Can you tell me what your strategies are? Can you tell me what your pain points are? Many of these reps don’t really understand some of the answers to those questions. They don’t understand what strategy is, for example, or how to interpret the CIO’s answer, or how to translate the answer into what products the CIO needs. They seem to be following a script — if the CIO says ‘supply chain management’ then the rep responds ‘we have some procurement software.’ Dealing with poorly schooled reps is a big time-waster for CIOs and a significant handicap for the vendor during the sales process. Both sides would benefit substantially from reps who are better trained in business fundamentals.

5 Put on the CIO’s shoes

Sales reps should know what it’s like to be in the CIO’s shoes. That means understanding what it’s like to find out on Friday afternoon that a critical application scheduled to launch on Monday isn’t ready. How does the CIO avoid such disasters? By buying products that fit! A good sales rep should find out what the customer’s architecture is — whether or not they run Apache servers or Linux machines or SCO boxes or Microsoft, for example. With this knowledge the rep can explain how their product fits into that environment so that it can be managed by the same technical resources that the CIO has today, without adding any incremental complexity to the support environment. That’s what it means for a rep to put on the CIO’s shoes. And rarely does it happen. Rarely will the sales rep ask the next couple of questions of the CIO — probe a bit further to figure the situation out and translate that better understanding into information that will help the CIO understand the rep’s product.

6 Work with the CIO end-to-end

The CIO’s objective is end to end; it’s not just getting the software in place. For the CIO to do his or her job properly, the problem must be understood, a solution must be found, and the implementation of that solution must be properly managed all the way through, along with the change that goes with it. The vendor needs to understand this lifecycle — that it’s not only a matter of getting the product in place but also of getting it comfortably in use by the end-user organization in a way that is sustainable over time. The vendor must also understand where it can play a part in this lifecycle, and it should plan to do so in a supportive manner. That part may only involve a portion of the life cycle. If this is the case, it is essential that the vendor understands where its role starts and stops, without trying to use its position to creep into territory it was not awarded.

7 Capture and use your knowledge of the customer

Some companies tend to put a new rep in place for the CIO’s account every year or so. And the new rep always asks the same questions: “Tell me about your strategy. What are

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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