How to sell to the CIO

Suppliers often go badly wrong when trying to sell new technology to the CIO. Here's how to do it right so that everyone benefits.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
Franck-Boston, Getty Images/iStockphoto

I often ask IT leaders to tell me about their biggest challenges, and the lack of proper engagement from salespeople in technology companies comes top of the list.

This lack of empathy is surprising, seeing as almost everyone in the technology industry talks about the importance of relationships. Modern CIOs are constantly told they need to take an engaged approach to internal colleagues and external partners. In fact, the development of this new outward-facing style has been one of the key characteristics of successful CIOs during the past decade.

The very best IT leaders now excel at vendor management. They push responsibility for day-to-day operations to trusted lieutenants and spend more time on value-adding activities, such as strategy and innovation. Great CIOs take an overarching view and help their business make the most of a tight ecosystem of trusted technology partners.

Understanding the CIO challenge

However, as IT leaders have become more engaged, so executives on the vendor side of the equation have failed to stay similarly attentive. This lack of engagement is a problem for both sides. Fewer CIOs than ever are relying on big-ticket outsourcing arrangements. They need smart solutions to business challenges.

What IT leaders often receive is the kind of cold-call technique that would embarrass a call centre selling broadband, never mind an account manager who is trying to sell million-dollar IT services.

Take the experiences of Matt Peers, CIO at law firm Linklaters, who recounts a recent phone conversation with a vendor. A salesperson rang, asked if Peers was the CIO and proceeded to say that he called to talk about his IT strategy.

"And that's his next line," says Peers. "I've got no idea who this person is and he expects to hear about my IT strategy. What do they want me to do? Kick back, put my feet on the desk and spend half an hour chatting about my strategy? Then I get salespeople who phone up and they tell me they'd like to send me a whitepaper. And why would I want that? I haven't asked for it."

Such half-hearted engagements are a regular story. CIOs complain that vendors fail to complete even basic research. A salesperson that can't do the right homework and make the right introduction is unlikely to be well-received by a CIO seeking technology to help run his or her business.

Former CIO turned digital advisor Ian Cohen says his engagements with vendors suggest that most IT companies fall at a familiar hurdle. Too many salespeople, he says, work backwards. They start their client engagement by discussing the benefits of their products, rather than listening to the demands of their potential customers.

"That's completely the wrong way around," says Cohen. "It's ridiculous that, even now, you still have people that are trying to sell pre-packaged products and services without a deeper understanding of the customer's specific business needs and challenges."

No amount of neatly presented PowerPoint slides and sales tracks are going to convince a senior IT executive that your firm's system or service is better than any other vendor's. The key to success is knowing your customer, not knowing your own company.

The most successful IT companies understand the critical importance of engaging with the customer and appreciate the challenges their business faces.

So, if you're an IT vendor looking to build a strong relationship with a CIO, put your laptop away, open your ears and listen to your customer.

Understand their current priorities and long-term objectives. Take this knowledge and try to match your firm's products to the CIO's business requirements.

Building a strong partnership

Proactivity helps, too. I spoke to one CIO who went to an open day with a big-name supplier. His previous interactions with the company had been terrible. But, on this occasion, the vendor was -- in his own words -- "amazing".

The supplier took time to prepare. They analysed the roles and backgrounds of the people in the business they were meeting, and they created a presentation about the issues faced by other executives in similar organisations.

Some of the assumptions made by the account managers, admits the CIO, were wrong. However, the level of preparation created a huge uplift in perception. Before the presentation, the vendor wouldn't have been considered as potential technology partner. Afterwards, they stood a chance.

Such examples help highlight how the adage that 'people buy from people' remains as true as ever. Mark Foulsham, CDO at Scope, says the key to relationships, when it comes down to partnering with external organisations, is personal connections.

The focus on a personal approach chimes with Chris White, global CIO at law firm Clyde & Co, who looks to build ongoing relationships. Rather than a single tool or service for a specific business challenge, White looks to create a regular engagement with senior account managers who can help him and his IT team find the right solutions to business challenges.

"My approach is that I want to have strategic relationships with a relatively small number of key vendors who become my thought leaders because they know their area of expertise far better than I do. If we build that mutually beneficial relationship, then we can work together successfully," says White.

So, there is good news: IT sales teams who develop a proactive, personal approach to CIOs can get a permanent foot in the door. Yet there's no room for complacency once a contract is signed. Proactivity must also extend to ongoing account management, which can be a merry-go-round.

CIOs suggest salespeople tend to move accounts regularly, often as an IT leader has got used to a manager and the individual in question has begun to understand the demands of the CIO and his or her business. "The churn risk is huge," says interim CIO and consultant Toby Clarke, who adds that consistency will be rewarded.

"The companies I've brought products from tend to have longevity in their account management team. It shows me that they have faith in the stuff they're selling because they're still working for the company."

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