An IT vendor's saleswoman recently thanked me for being open to talking with her and implied that most folks she deals with are vendor-hostile. That's also been my experience: Most IT pros think doing calls and meetings with vendors are a waste of time.
But if you stick your head in the sand, don't be surprised when you fail to move forward. My organization once implemented a low-cost, high-value system management product that we never would have known about if we hadn't received a pitch on it. We all know the bad side of sales. But the good side, at the correct time and in the correct dosage, can usher in business technology innovation.
I'm no vendor fanboy. Indeed, "bad Jonathan" sometimes comes out when vendors are wasting my time. But if you try to dodge all of those phone calls and emails, you're missing an opportunity. It's all about soundvendor management, which, surprisingly, doesn't get talked about much, especially considering how important it is. Here are four things I do to ensure that my time with vendors is as productive as it can be.
>> Establish guidelines. Vendor meetings can be a total time suck, which is why most IT people avoid them. So it's important that your organization establish guidelines on what employees should do when faced with vendor solicitations. Should your people immediately take the call? Pass it to someone else? If so, to whom? If it's decided not to engage the vendor at all, based on what criteria? Any way you slice it, your employees need guidance so that they don't go overboard one way or another.
>> Set expectations. My organization's website clearly states where product and service calls should go. Similarly, my voice mail also spells out a number that vendors should call if they want assistance. Congratulations for Googling my personal line, but I'm not calling you back if you don't follow directions.
>> Direct the call. If you have the time to engage with a cold caller, great. I've actually had some productive conversations with cold callers over the years--not many, but enough to want to answer the phone to extract the occasional wheat kernel from the massive amount of chaff. But in general, it's a bad sales tactic.
I probably field five to 10 cold calls a year. I keep about 50 to 60 vendor appointments, though. Cold callers: Are you feeling lucky?
When I'm in my office, I'm either heads down on a project or in a meeting. But in the rare case that I answer the phone between things, I have only five minutes, tops. So I make the vendor get right to the elevator pitch so that I can quickly evaluate whether I want to hear more at another time. I tend to say something like, "What's the value in what you're selling, in 30 seconds or less?" Hang up on people who say they're not selling anything.
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>> Control timing. Beyond the random cold-call engagement, if a vendor salesperson wants to talk with me, then he can make the commitment of an appointment. That's why I've posted that other number--someone who can access my calendar answers that phone. You do need to spend time with vendors to hear and evaluate their message, but keep these get-to-know-you calls short, to less than 30 minutes. These calls are to evaluate the elevator pitch, not to discuss strategy.
Many salespeople will ask for an hour of your time. In both the private and public sector, I've seen milquetoast IT pros spend two and three hours on a preliminary vendor meeting. That's just insane. No wonder these folks don't get anything else done. Control the timing; don't let it control you.
Ignoring sales calls isn't an option unless you want to join the legions of the uninformed. You need to explore different technologies and technology approaches, but you also need to sift through a lot of noise to decide which pitches merit action. Make the commitment this year to do so efficiently. I bet you'll experience at least a few aha moments that will benefit your business.
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