What CIOs really want

4 Apr 2007

CIOs of blue-chip Irish organisations recently had the chance to reveal “What do IT managers really, really want?” Not surprisingly, the seminar in question drew a large crowd of IT salespeople.

Taking the very simple premise that those most likely to know What it takes to land a lucrative IT contract with one of Ireland’s leading organisations would be the decision makers in such organisations themselves, the IT Sales Network — a collaboration between the Irish Computer Society and the Sales Institute — hosted a seminar in January that brought together CIOs from leading Irish organisations and an audience of IT salespeople.

The CIOs could address the issue of just what it is that appeals to them — or equally as important what does not — when dealing with IT salespeople offering them equipment and services. Presented with a packed hall, the salespeople in attendance had a golden opportunity to network with some of their most desirable prospects.

When given an opportunity to lecture those whose job it is to pester them mercilessly about which of their foibles generates the most contempt, many of the star speakers could not resist throwing a few heartfelt barbs at their tormentors. Yet contained within the presentations of each and every speaker was some sound, positive advice that any prospective IT salesperson could learn from.

Perhaps the greatest encouragement was given by the first speaker, Eircom’s IT director, Gerry Quinn. “Over the years I have bought some good products and solutions from good salespeople, and I have bought some bad products and solutions from good salespeople,” he said. “But I have never bought anything from a bad salesperson.” Moral of the story: no matter how good your kit, it won’t sell itself. There is still a job for the salesperson to do, and they must do it well.

Know their needs

So what do CIOs really, really want, as the working title of the event promised to answer? The common thread running through all of the presentations was that they want salespeople who understood their respective businesses, including all the issues operational, commercial and technical that each organisation faces on an individual basis. They want salespeople who know their way around the organisation so that the most appropriate people were being approached about each prospective sale and most importantly they want salespeople who can deliver on everything they promised.

They don’t want to be cold-called, they don’t want to wade through brochures or mounds of email and they don’t want to be made feel that they were just another item on a lengthy prospects list. One speaker doubtless made some of his audience squirm by reading through the contents of that day’s wastepaper basket, consisting largely of brochures and letters from IT salespeople, that he had retrieved solely for the evening’s purpose. One cheerfully told him that the company would like to meet him as the CIO of a ‘leading company from the UK’, which produced a groan from all in attendance. Call us binge-drinking bog-trotting savages but whatever you do, don’t call us Brits.

CIOs want to feel that a salesperson knows at least something about their organisation — the more the better. So for example when Vincent Nolan, CIO of the large but privately owned Dunnes Stores retail operation, received a request to evaluate a system that would help with its Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) requirements, he gave it pretty short shrift. SOX compliance is a torture only to be endured by large companies publicly quoted on US stock markets, not by a family firm no matter how big it is.

In the case of Eircom, the IT procurement function is split into two with different people having responsibility for maintenance and new capability. “There are two different owners,” he said, “but the cost issue never goes away. We are always trying to deliver more with less.”

A key issue for Eircom is stability. “If our systems and processes go down, we lose money,” said Quinn. “It is vital for us that they are kept up and running. Also, some of our systems have been in place for 25 years so introducing change while maintaining stability is an extremely complex issue. Any sales professional trying to sell into that environment has to be aware of that issue. If they get a negative reaction, it may be because we just don’t want to entertain the problem of disruption.”

When selling in an IT system that will introduce new capability to Eircom “The sales professional has to be able to talk about a solution that is fit for purpose,” said Quinn. “They have to understand my environment and what I need.”

Company culture is also something that varies from one customer to another. In Eircom there is a lengthy internal approvals process for strategic projects that can make the lead time for some sales quite long, and it is important for salespeople to understand that. On the positive side, however, this is an area where a good salesperson can make his or her mark on the organisation and become a trusted partner.

“We look to the vendor community to help us make our case during the approvals process,” said Quinn. “The really good ones will be able to operate at different levels of the organisation and will know how issues impact people at different levels. They will know that the IT manager may have different issues to other people in the organisation and will be able to recognise that.”

Dunnes Stores, on the other hand, has a more informal culture. “We will never be innovators in IT,” said Nolan. “We will always be followers. Having said which, we are a 24 x 7 operation and we expect our suppliers to behave in the same way. If you want to manage a Dunnes Stores account, you have to have dedication. Basically we are just a multi-billion euro corner shop!”

Understanding the customer profile

Nolan also highlights the benefits of knowing the customer’s issues before trying to make a sale. “Our IT works back from our customers,” he said. “It starts with EPOS [electronic point of sale], then to our stores and then to our head office.” Dunnes Stores does not have a formalised procurement process. “We want proposals that are kept very simple, preferably on one sheet of paper,” said Nolan. “We need to know the cost up front and we want a clear picture of the return-on-investment model. Typically, we would expect an return on investment within 18 months.”

Leo Lundy, chief technical officer of the Imagine Group, a company that provides ADSL broadband and telco carrier services, again highlighted the need for salespeople to understand his company’s business. “All of our value is in customer acquisition,” he said. “That is where we are looking for solutions that can help us. Back-office functions are not our core business and we would look to outsource as much of them as possible.”

Lundy is not interested in buying off-the-shelf products. “I don’t buy products, I buy solutions and I have a strategic plan that vendors need to understand,” he said. “They need to tell me about the product, the solution, the business case for it and how do I make money. If they do all that first, we’ll get on fine.”

Mick Furlong, newly appointed IT director at health insurance company VHI, stressed the importance of a track record when trying to gain his interest. “Suppliers should build on their successes,” he said. “Nobody wants to be a pioneer. Show me where you’ve been successful with other customers and how you can bring the same success to the VHI.”

Padraic Mills, IT director of insurance giant AXA, also puts a lot of faith in successful customer references. “We want to know about people with a proven track record and properly referenced sites where they have done business elsewhere,” he said. Among the other matters he looks for in vendors and salespeople are honesty, the willingness to act like a partner, the ability to deliver and of course the ability to make the correct business case for whatever product or solution is being proposed. “We want salespeople that listen to the problem so that they deliver to us exactly what it says on the tin,” said Mills. “It’s very important, too, that they send the right people to the presentations so that we can get answers quickly.”

A vexed question is how to get the attention of major clients in the first place. Everybody is agreed that a successful salesperson needs to know how the client’s business works but how do you start off building a relationship?

Furlong says that personal recommendations, especially from within the organisation, are helpful. “Start with somebody you know,” he said, “and work from there.” Lundy at Imagine was extremely candid about the problem. Like all the other speakers he dislikes cold-calling, unsolicited mail and brochure ware. “Getting to me is a black art and I really don’t know how people do it,” he said. “Perhaps the best way is through somebody that knows me but in truth I don’t really know how people do it.”

Mills at AXA is amazed by the number of classmates he had at college. “The number of people who claim to have been at college with me is growing exponentially,” he said. At the end of the day, though, he wants to hear from people who can explain the benefits of their products and solutions in simple terms and without “any bull”.

One got the clear impression from listening to these top-rank decision makers that it is not an easy job to convince any of them of the value of your wares. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that a successful sales pitch can be rewarding. Nolan from Dunnes Stores put it very succinctly. “We are annoying and demanding,” he said, “but we will pay for quality. You just have to show us how you can help us do things better.”

By David D’Arcy