What do Tech Buyers Really Think of Salespeople? Three CIO’s Tell All!

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Several years ago I phoned a colleague about a customer’s technical problem, and asked her to transfer me to Tom in Hardware Support. “Sure. Hold on,” she said. Then, assuming her preamble was private, she said, “Tom, I have Andy Rudin on the line—that short whiner.”

As a VoIP-enabled voyeur, learning what others really think was enlightening. Still, the male ego is a delicate thing. I revealed my presence by saying, “Mary, I am not short.”

Last week, I had a similar opportunity for insight when I attended a panel discussion at the Tower Club in Tysons Corner, Virginia, What Technology Buyers Really Want from Marketers. The session was full of candor, so I wasn’t disappointed. First, the bad news: as sales professionals, our reputation is checkered, to say the least. You already knew that. Now, the good news: technology buyers need salespeople. But what you might not know how is how buyers perceive our interactions with them.

The Tower Club reeks of consumption. Suits and ties. No unshaven faces or flip-flops, even for twenty-something technology entrepreneurs. The club is located on the 17th floor of an office tower which the locals call The Shopping Bag Building, owing to its conspicuous pinnacle that resembles two shopping bag handles. The imagery is not accidental. The building casts its huge shadow on the country’s seventh-largest shopping mall, Tysons Corner, and it’s a stone’s throw from the headquarters of Capital One. I’ve heard that paper money flitters through its ductwork.

A fitting venue for the three CIO panelists—David Roth of The Carlyle Group, Bruce Mancinelli of Inc.spire, and Vijay Samalam of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute—whose cumulative career IT purchases approach $1 billion. Divide that number by 1,000, and you know the total number of PowerPoint slides they’ve endured through countless sales presentations. A battle-hardened group.

Here are the highlights:

Question: What advice would you give someone who’s new to tech buying about working with technology vendors? David Roth responded, “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten much more cynical: don’t trust what they tell you.” He described his struggles to keep his team focused on required outcomes when they meet with vendors. When he hears business IT users say “I didn’t like that sales rep,” or “I really like the team that presented,” he encourages them not to allow those biases to permeate their evaluations, adding, “Demos screw up the buying process. Don’t see them until you understand your business requirements.”

Question: Outside of your organization, what are the top sources of influence in your buying decisions? The panelists agreed that peers hold the greatest sway. David Roth shared that “CIO’s of private equity firms get together every three to four months, and just to talk about what we’re doing . . . it’s like looking at yourself in the mirror.”

Question: What do you consider the biggest recent changes in the buying process? There were several insights:

• The acquisition of technology no longer requires investing in capital assets, such as hardware (I recommend reading this twice while inhaling deeply and slowly. If there is any development more significant for IT vendors, I don’t know what it is.)

• Business users are more involved in IT buying than they were in the past. A challenge for IT executives is how to include them in the procurement process, and how to achieve balance between business unit needs and IT requirements.

• The traditional developer concept, “build it and they’ll come” is no longer true. Today’s technology buyer sees ease of operations, maintainability, and user support as offering greater value than “jazz factors” of technology.

• Technology buyers are no longer perfunctory when discovering the experiences other companies have had with a vendor’s technology. Today, such discovery is done early and often in the buying process–not just after the purchase decision has been made. Bruce Mancinelli shared that such rigor helps buyers “pick up patterns of good, bad, and concerning.”

• Demands for shorter time-to-value are driving unprecedented requirements for simplicity, ease-of-use, and customer support. This development creates faster buying cycles, a counterpoint to what many say are lengthening sales cycles.

• Having a path for IT evolution is a major buying consideration.

Do these developments mean you should siphon funding from marketing communications into customer support? No, but they do mean that your sales training program, product leadership and nifty website won’t get you very far sales-wise if your customers don’t have anything good to say about you or your company.

They mean that sales people who are stuck in demo-mode, with little tactical training outside promoting feature/capability/benefit, won’t make quota, no matter how hard they’re flogged. They mean that your company’s ability to make its revenue plan now depends as much on the selling skills of your customers as it does on those of your sales force. A year ago, you would have been forgiven for thinking of that idea as a tad facetious. Not anymore.

Do these CIO’s foresee the end of the road for salespeople, as others contend? I didn’t hear it. IT buyers need salespeople. They need them to walk their company’s walk and talk their company’s talk. In other words, they want salespeople with backbones, but packaged in a less product-centric, more strategic wrapper. David Roth told of one sales representative who repeatedly said, “Oh, we can change that . . .” when he talked about his company’s offerings. He contrasted that approach with a more resolute salesperson who said, “. . . we heard you, but here’s what we think . . .” It was obvious which salesperson won his respect. Steve Jobs said, “. . . a lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Agility is great, until it gets in everyone’s way.

Even with gobs of information available through Internet and social media channels, IT buyers still value salespeople who can educate them. Not by reciting product specs laden with bits, bytes, feeds, speeds, features, and functions, but about tacit stuff that’s harder to uncover online: relationships. Each panelist shared how IT decision makers are focused on the expectation of trusted, long-term relationships. It’s hard to assure that vendor-client collaborations will go well by showing a PowerPoint slide, or by saying it on an “About Us” website page. So salespeople will have to dust off touchier-feelier relationship skills that were less in demand when cold technical product knowledge coupled with “show ’em the sizzle and the steak” could truly rock a group of techie buyers in a sales call.

But education can go wrong, as Vijay Samalam shared. “Howard Hughes Medical Institute conducts pure research. Some cold calls I receive are about clinical trials or drug trials. I tell the salespeople we’re not involved in that.” Are these errant sales conversations educating prospects? Yes, but not in a good way, because these vendors are teaching prospects to devalue their efforts. Selling is complicated, but this part isn’t rocket science. A little pre-call homework goes a long way.

My mind goes back to David Roth’s succinct summation, “don’t trust what they tell you.” Like “short, little whiner,” it’s a wee bit harsh, but hearing it offers the listener the opportunity to know what to change.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Andrew,

    I missed this post when you published it a year ago. Shame on me.

    There is a lot of valuable insight here, not just for technology sellers, but everyone selling in a B2B environment.

    The points made by the CIOs underscore for me the importance of business and financial acumen on the part of salespeople AND their willingness and ability to understand their customer at the business level.

  2. Part of the impression CIO’s have today is that they’ve bought software so many times now. The first few times you are less educated and more trusting. After getting burned a few times, you now are more cynical, more questioning, and frankly just smarter about the whole process!

    If you are selling tech the ‘old way’, it just doesn’t work anymore!

  3. Dave and Michael: thanks for taking the time to post your comments. Despite what might appear to be negative, it’s-worse-than-you-think sentiment from CIO’s and technical buyers, there’s an upside. Sales managers and salespeople can differentiate themselves by changing their relationships to buyers. For many companies, this requires not just a change in tactics or “brushing up selling skills,” but requires a change in strategy. Very little in selling can remain untouched: from recruiting and hiring, to development, to compensation, to channel management, to process, and beyond.

    If corporate executives are wondering where to start and what to do, just ask a customer–they’ll tell you.

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