Startled rabbit or trusted adviser?

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It is generally accepted that the use of IT has a role to play in delivering value to business, and ultimately to customers. Some might say they have little empirical evidence of this.

But a word of caution: do not confuse the inability to weave IT into the business and measure the associated value with the different question of IT not delivering value.

I have touched on the concept of the IT value chain in this column. I believe there is a value chain that runs from the outside world through the IT supplier, through one’s organisation via various departments, and back into the outside world in the form of customer value.

A key link in this value chain is between supplier and buyer. The relationship can exist at an operational, management and/or executive level.

Generally operational buyers want to know what the offering will do for them. Management buyers want to know how the offering will improve the business. Executive buyers generally want to know why they should buy it.

I have had the privilege to work with many thousands of new technology sales people. And it is a privilege to work with high energy, highly focused, upbeat individuals.

Over the years I have observed that when it comes to the subject of new technologies, many exhibit certain behaviours including, skilfully changing the subject, averting eye contact and spewing out related techno jargon – or even not so related techno jargon. Overall this comes across as some form of medical condition. What was earlier a confident socially skilled individual now appears to have rabbit-headlight syndrome accompanied by ”speaking in tongues”.

Of course there are successful (they have personally made a lot of money) and value-adding (they have actually improved the client condition) sales people in the IT arena. In my experience they exist at the extreme ends of the value-adding Bell curve. Sadly the norm is below what I would describe as the value-adding threshold.

This problem is exacerbated by the influx of “get rich quick” drifters that are looking to surf the IT market upturn.

Many sales people struggle to survive their conversations with operational buyers, because the conversation is more features-driven.

The seller can more or less recite the product specification sheet to address the questions of the buyer.

The sale gets a little more difficult at the management level. Often pre-sales support specialists accompany the sales person. “How” questions are skilfully deflected towards the socially skilled “techie”, who in essence wins the business. These new-age techies are often not commercially skilled because the “sales person” often seems to walk away with the lion’s share of the commission.

At board level the seller may well be out of their depth. Making the link between why their product will cause a business to redirect capital from some other product/project is too much to conceptualise. We are now in the “benefits zone” and they cannot be read off a product spec because benefits are in the mind of the buyer and buyers come in all shapes and sizes.

A consultative sell is required, with a strong emphasis on consultative. This is where most new technology sales staff come unstuck. Consequently they avoid non-operational buyers and thus do not win strategic big-ticket business. So while the supplier’s products deliver value, the sales person might not.

Thus both buyer and seller generally lose out and the IT industry takes the blame.

So what can you do to ensure that your next IT sales encounter delivers value to your organisation?

• Ensure the sales person understands their product features. Ask them to explain the buzzwords in terms that make sense to you. Try the following for a warm up: Web 2.0, C#, thin-client.

• Don’t buy anything until you trust the buyer. And dismiss buyers who try to sell to you before they have established trust. A courtship needs to take place at your pace not theirs.

• Ensure the seller understands your business. At the very least they need to have studied your website and annual report. Ask them how their offering will support your publicly stated strategic imperatives.

Overselling, underselling and mis-selling all damage the reputation of those who nobly create and support IT products and solutions. Supplier organisations need to invest in their business development staff. Sales is also a noble profession, but given the sophistication of IT, better knowledge and a more consultative approach is required.

The most successful technology suppliers will be those that work out how to convert startled rabbits into trusted advisers.

■ Ade McCormack (ade@auridian.com) is founder of Auridian (www.auridian.com), a people-development business helping organisations get best value from their IT investment. He is also author of “IT Demystified - The IT handbook for business professionals” available via www.auridian.com/book.

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