Dec 192011

A few weeks ago, I received a call from a Microsoft partner who was promoting Microsoft 360 as the “cloud-based answer to all my Office needs.” [It is not really a quote, but that’s how I listened to his pitch.]

Now, here I was thinking that Office was the answer to all my Office needs. Go figure.

Many of you know that I consulted for 20 years, leading ultimately toward my current CIO role.

Over that span of time, the course of my work required developing sales skills in addition to technical and strategic competence.

In my world, selling effectively is an action that requires buying. One doesn’t happen without the other.

Sales and salespeople aren’t “evil”, but the connection required to produce a “sale”, at least the most valuable ones, requires that the good or service is able to take care of one or more of a buyer’s concerns.

What strikes me is the number of prospecting calls I receive each day in which the seller has no idea what matters to me. It seems like a huge contrast to my experience as a seller.

I never hawked the Cloud as if its value were self-evident – I never hawked SOA as if it had merits of its own.

Nor do I think those trends were as simple as “new spins” on already-existing capabilities… any more than “moving to the web” was “going back to the mainframe” (whatever meaning that carries for you, it suggests a similarly weak narrative to me).

Conversations of flexibility, integration and loosely coupled building blocks might be more complicated, but they don’t dumb down business goals or strategic concerns as if all the issues I face could be reduced down to “the Cloud”.

Some of you reading this may be my colleagues on the buyer’s side of the table. A few months ago, you may have been my clients or prospects, but you may have similar observations about some of the sellers you meet.

For those on the selling side, expect me to ask why I should care about the platitudes you speak… or expect me just not to answer your call.

What is most curious to me is that all the sales methodologies that speak about “value” are common sense. I would have thought they were common knowledge.

For a salesperson to “get through” to me, all they have to do is show up as meaningful, relevant and valuable to me… but it is really not that common to find.

Customer service does not begin after the sale… if you want to “take care” of your customer, start by making an offer they really care about.

  9 Responses to “Cloud cover: Fads don’t hide fundamentals”

  1. Cutting through the clutter and discovering areas to positively impact our clients’ businesses is one of the ongoing challenges of the sales professional. I agree that customer service and delivering value begins in the discovery phase. However, to effectively assess the potential benefits of given technologies requires collaboration between solution providers and their prospective clients.

    For example, I had conversations with previous American Laser Center IT staffers and learned its various locations were not integrated under an enterprise-level VoIP (aka unified communications) platform. Each site was managed as a silo and very dependent on local vendors.

    Based upon those preliminary discussions, I assume American Laser will greatly benefit from a centrally managed, easy to use, and inherently reliable Pure IP system that leverages existing investments in IP infrastructures to reduce cost and improve customer service. However, in order to quantify the positive impact of such an approach requires additional discovery and in-depth discussion in order to estimate both hard-dollar and soft-cost (productivity) benefits.

    • Roy, thanks for the pitch. This can make for a great conversation, so I will write some more about it this weekend if I have the opening.

      To evaluate an offer effectively, a buyer listens to descriptions and makes interpretations against a background the seller could never fully know. Those interpretations leads to further interpretations of meaning, relevance, value and purposes… all in the mind of the buyer, and again in ways that a seller could not fully know.

      A seller has to work to anticipate how those interpretations could unfold and then speak descriptions in ways that trigger the interpretations that are suitable to complete the transaction. But because the seller cannot know the situation, it may be through no fault of their own that their offer is not accepted.

      One area that sellers struggle against is shifting priorities of their buyers. To use your specific example, the merits of unified communications should show up as meaningful and valuable to a buyer, while embarking on the fastest 363 turnaround in the history of bankruptcy courts may make the offer irrelevant because it cannot consume the time, energy, money and lost opportunities of the buyer.

      In that, and especially with the plethora of organizations making similar offers, investing some of that time, energy, money and lost opportunity to simply respond to offers that are situationally irrelevant (though perhaps strategically meaningful and valuable) may be a luxury a buyer cannot afford. In those cases, sometimes “Not now, but later” may be the best response you might expect.

      Voice mails about VoIP, for example, that suggest it is an “obvious” answer to problems that are not high priority may go unanswered in the same way that “cloud” offers, “we want to help you with your IT staffing needs” or “outsource your projects to us” go unanswered.

      Of course, raising your hand as a provider in the market by finding creative ways to show up in a personal forum like a blog is a really creative tactic. Either way, timing is one key, as long as the crafting of descriptions is targeted for that specific outcome.

  2. Ken, Thank you for your very well articulated response.

    It is a reminder that regardless of the goods or services one has to offer, we need to put ourselves into our prospective clients shoes and realize that our priorities are not necessarily in line with theirs, even when our offerings make strategic sense. IT teams have to manage multiple competing priorities and senior management teams that are not necessarily well versed in the operational benefits various IT systems can bring. In addition, financial and organizational hurdles can derail projects before they get started.

    While it is highly unlikely an IT executive will be willing (or even able) to share all their various competing priorities for the coming year, any service provider needs to appreciate that which is most important to us may not even be on the radar of any given prospect. As you stated, we can only “raise our hands” to inform them of our areas of expertise and trust we will be contacted (or get lucky and contact them) when their priorities dovetail with the services we offer.

    On that note, I have learned over the years to ask up front what my prospects current priorities are and to attempt to gain a sense of where the various products and services my firm provides fit into their overall timeframes. It makes very little sense for me to discuss your plans for VoIP/unified communications/network design, etc. if your existing phone systems are no yet fully depreciated, you are locked into carrier accounts, your owner is best friends with the current provider, and/or you are in the middle of large scale rollouts of other unrelated systems (be they ERP, server and PC upgrades, CRM, etc.).

    Therefore, my initial pulse-checking question is typically something along the lines of, “As you are likely aware, communications technology has undergone a radical transformation over the last 15 years with the emergence and maturation of unified communications technologies (aka VoIP). This technology has proven to help reduce ongoing expenses and enhance productivity in most organizations, particularly in multi-site companies. With that in mind, I am touching base to ask when your organization anticipates researching alternatives for replacing your legacy PBXs?”

    The essential purpose of this message is to cut through the clutter in order to accomplish two primary goals. First, IT professionals are extremely busy and have no time for overly verbose, adjective-riddled sales pitches. So, the message quickly informs the prospect that unified communications is mature technology that makes business sense for most multi-site organizations. Secondly, this message directly asks about timelines and priorities. It is my hope that this approach respects my prospective clients’ time and appreciates the opportunity costs invested in proper due diligence for any new IT initiatives. And helps seperate me from the pack.

    • Sure.

      There is an old sales allegory about people not really wanting vacuum cleaners but clean floors.

      When an offer speaks to the outcomes you promise, buyers can make assessments of the value and the tradeoff of the outcome. To say, for example, “you need Office 360 because the cloud is cool” doesn’t say anything about an outcome.

      Many sales professionals I encounter do not speak in terms of promises. Most IT folks don’t want to think of promises, either (just read my post about padding estimates for an example).

      No matter how it turns out, if two people make the “same” offer (whether in sales or in estimating work), but the promise made by one is greater than the promise made by the other – in the assessment of the recipient of the offer – the greater promise will be the more highly valued, if we also assess it is backed up by solid support as a real and likely outcome.


      • That is an interesting post regarding estimate padding.

        Several years ago I worked for a major Telco. Getting a large carrier to commit to a cut date, properly implement, and properly bill circuits is often a major challenge. Sales people in this environment find themselves in a position of having to pad every estimate because they too often don’t trust the dates they have been given by others within the organization. In general it appears the larger the company, the less accountable individuals are for their own actions (it is easier to hide – or blame).

        I have found that working for a smaller integrator places me in a far better position relative to accurately promising and delivering on promises (of course it is very important to confirm projected dates and deliverables with all team members prior to committing to timeframes with a client). It is also beneficial to have an extensive base of happy customers who can attest to our team’s ability to deliver on time and on budget.

        • I have seen it both ways – big companies that pad or little companies that miss their promises. Some of the way I think about estimates and promises comes from being an engineer and some of it comes from selling effectively and with integrity. The two domains are not necessarily far off.

          For all the developers who avoid thinking their estimates are promises, they are often concerned about being held accountable for “estimates”… but salespeople have to live with that every day. Those that succeed are the ones who make big promises and then keep them. Over- or under-promising does not build the same amount of trust as just “letting your yes be ‘yes’ and your no be ‘no'”… a simple axiom that appears at times to be little known or little practiced.

          • Well said … in order for an organization to effectively deliver on promises, sales and engineering need to be on the same page in order to clearly define project scopes, timelines, and pricing. Deliverables need to be clearly articulated and promises need to be in line with reality!

  3. […] Sometimes we use the phrase when we want to downplay the significance of something that appears like a fad to us. […]

  4. […] In the post on my site Cloud Cover: Facts Don't Hide Fundamentals, I wrote about the general presumption that IT departments find intrinsic value in "the cloud." […]

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