On the whole, IT professionals rarely get much recognition — until something goes wrong, and then the attention tends to be wholly negative.
The power trip that accompanies a phone call from a sales rep should come as a light relief then. You're in the driving seat, and you both know it. Before the buttering up even begins, it's your choice whether to take the call or consign them to voicemail purgatory.
Given this imbalance of power, interacting with salespeople should be a lot more fun than it is. But thanks to the Jedi-like mind tricks and ruthless determination they display as standard, somehow the relationship isn't as one-sided as it should be.
ZDNet.co.uk contacted some IT managers to find out exactly what it is that salespeople do to rub them up the wrong way, and why it's so exasperating.
1. Faux friendliness
It's one of life's harsh truths: as an IT professional, you're not very popular. Everyone blames you for blocking access to Facebook and the email being down for four and half minutes this morning. If someone in marketing has downloaded a virus and the network is knocked out for a day — that's IT's fault.
Fortunately, there's one person who will always be on your side: the trusty IT salesperson. At least, that's how it seems to Nick Lowman, IT manager with Lloyd Northover, a London-based design agency. "IT salespeople always act as though they're my long-lost buddy. I get all these messages asking how I am, saying we really need to 'touch base' because it's 'been too long'," Lowman said. "And, most of the time, I have no idea who they are."
The most common complaint about IT salespeople is that they don't just call once or twice. They call over and over and over again, according to Paul Aquilina, IT director of communications agency Glass. "They are trained in how to overcome almost any variation of 'no, thanks' or 'I'm not interested'," he said.
Aquilina has solved the problem by creating a sub-section within the company's CRM database that logs all incoming IT sales calls and flags them "interesting" or "not interesting". This helps the reception staff to field calls more effectively and also means that Aquilina doesn't miss calls that might be interesting. "I never dismiss a sales call without considering the information," he said. "Even if it's not relevant, that five-minute conversation might give me some insight into a new technology or one of our competitors."
Repeated phone calls not only waste time, they also suggest to IT managers that there's a problem in shifting the product, added Lowman. "I always wonder whether the supplier has placed an over-optimistic order and is now desperately trying to shift stock."
The best way to stop repeated phone calls is to field calls effectively and to be firm, said Dan Hooper, an IT consultant with Capita and Reuters. "IT salesmen love to call up on a weekly basis to see how your weekend was and whether the project has progressed," he said. "If you don't want to be bothered, be firm and tell them you will call them when you're ready."
If you're being stalked, it might be worth checking to see how a salesman is incentivised, said David Roberts, chief executive of the Corporate IT Forum. "For example, one of our corporate members recently changed their account manager's pay structure after realising they were rewarded with a low basic salary and large bonus scheme," said Roberts. "This meant the customer was constantly being sold to, and the account manager wasn't focusing so much on service and support."
3. Getting the basics wrong
Lowman said he finds that one of the most annoying aspects of sales calls is that many are from people who simply don't know what he does or what he's bought in the past: "I'll get a call from someone saying they've heard I'm in the market for a Cray XT3 supercomputer or whatever, when the most processor-intensive thing we do is create a new PowerPoint presentation."
The reality is that most salespeople don't listen to clients, added Hooper. "They only want to know what the budget is, then they'll tell you they are the market leader and their solution is fully customisable to meet your needs — whatever that means."
4. Mindless optimism
The biggest complaint that Dorian Spackman has about IT salespeople is the constant hyperbole about products, prices and performance. As IT director of Group Up, a media-distribution firm, Spackman regularly meets with new suppliers working with internet technologies — and is heartily sick of trying to work out what he can and can't believe.
"They tell you the next iteration will hit the market in six months; that this thing will offer massive improvements and will change your life," Spackman says. "But what I hear is that they hope it doesn't slip too badly, and it's better because it's more expensive, not because it actually offers any more features. And, yes, it might change your life, but probably because your staff will spend most of their time on the phone to a product-support service in Bangalore, reading out the licence number for the 33rd time."
Sometimes, salespeople simply lose all perspective on what they are selling, added Peter Dunkley, a director at depo consulting: "No matter how you look at it, you cannot differentiate yourself from the competition in any meaningful way by buying a new router."
Of course, all those confident sales staff are preferable to the salesperson who told would-be clients that there would be an extra charge in the contract for keeping a copy of the software in an escrow account. "It was to give us access to the software's source code in case the company went bust," explained Aquilina. "Not the best way to instil confidence in a future customer."
6. Bad science
Sales staff are increasingly turning up to meetings armed with calculators and tables showing a product's "return on investment" (ROI). However, some IT professionals view any statistics used in a sales meeting as being suspect at best.
"Any statement that includes the phrase 'return on investment' should be met with extreme caution," said Dunkley. "My personal theory is that the salesman overheard the phrase being used by accountants and thought it sounded impressive. But they rarely understand exactly what they're talking about."
Dunkley said he always challenges ROI statistics in a sales meeting: "Ask whether they've taken into account opportunity cost, how have they discounted the cash flows and whether they'd exchange their upfront commission for a share of these marvellous returns."
Statements that salespeople make but don't understand include: "We add value", "We think outside of the box" and "The system can be fully integrated to meet your requirements".
While we all like a bargain, many IT managers view discounts offered in sales meetings as deeply suspect. "Any discount to get the sale into quarterly figures raises two questions for me," said Dunkley. "Are there so few people buying the product that this is an issue, and what is the salesman likely to compromise on to get the sale? There is a significant downside for the salesperson if they don't get that sale and my feeling is that human nature means they'll be prepared to sacrifice my best interest for their own."
While it may be surprisingly easy to negotiate large discounts on the cost of maintenance and support, cheap support is likely to be just that, cautioned Dunkley. "The warm glow of the initial purchase price is going to fade pretty quickly," he said.
It's possible to use the sales cycle to your advantage, said Hooper. "You have much more leverage at the end of a sales cycle, so keep your cool and don't commit to final numbers until the last minute," he advised. "Salesmen will give you extra value-adds or come down on price as the pressure is on for them to meet targets. You just need to keep your nerve."
8. The "upgrade path"
Any mention of an "upgrade path" means that Peter Dunkley automatically adds 50 to 100 percent of the initial purchase cost onto overall project costings. "And don't forget the ulcer you'll have as a result of managing that upgrade," he added.
What's more, if you're looking at future functionality, that really means the product doesn't currently do what you need it to, Dunkley added. "This gap is so significant, the salesman is making a huge gamble that you're not going to wait until the functionality is delivered — not a good sign."
9. No credibility
Remember that a customer reference is no substitute for a site visit — without the salesperson in attendance. Try to find a company in a similar industry or at least of similar size, said Dunkley, and ask questions. "If nothing else, find out whether the positive view of the supplier and its products might have been coloured by Six Nations tickets."
10. The lingo
If you want to get on an IT manager's nerves, say "business-process management" when you mean "workflow". "I hate it when salespeople talk about SOA [service-oriented architecture] like it's something completely new, when it's just the way any half-wit would architect a system these days," said Dunkley. "And, frankly, I'm not going to pay big bucks for Web 2.0 while it's something your 12-year-old could do while watching TV."
The best way to avoid being flannelled by an over-enthusiastic salesman is to have a clear objective for any meeting, suggested Hooper. "Salesmen will want to show you pretty PowerPoint, but you should outline objectives and agree the agenda by email in advance," he said.
11. Finally, just like with salespeople, there's always one more thing
A final word of caution from the Corporate IT Forum's Roberts: "Beware the supplier who utters the words 'software licence audit'. This is a specialist breed of salesperson and you need expert help to resist them."
A software licence audit specialist frequently disguises their attempt to sell as a desire to "help" your company, said Roberts. "They've been known to use scare tactics and to point to a range of large fines that can result from non-compliance with licence terms. Quite often, they show up around the time of mergers and acquisitions or other major corporate upheaval, when they suspect rich pickings can be found."