Secret CIO: Vendors Are Your Friends, Just Ask Them

Consider: trust, but verify, when working with salespeople.
One of the great pleasures in being a CIO is knowing that many people are interested in your welfare. For example, there's Lisa, my executive assistant, who spends her day making mine easier. Lisa and Cindy, my wife, talk frequently so that whether I'm at the office or home, I suffer not the slightest unnecessary inconvenience. I'm grateful to them, except when they conspire to bypass me in the decision-making process (on the grounds that someone so busy shouldn't waste his time on mundane matters, especially when he probably would make the wrong choice, anyway).

In addition to the two key women in my life, there are a plethora of vendors who worry about me. They miss no opportunity to convince me that if I would just partner with them, I'd be happier while ensuring the success of my organization. I'm grateful for their solicitude. Their attentiveness and consideration for my well-being is touching, even though my budget rarely permits me to take full advantage of the tools they tell me I need.

In fact, it seems as if every salesperson follows the precepts of relationship selling, building on the idea that the best way to convert a prospective customer into a client usable as a reference in the next sales pitch is to develop a personal bond. Of course, there's the nagging fear that your new best friend may not be as objective as you might wish.

What could surprise those who don't do a lot of technology purchasing is that most salespeople are committed to helping their customers. It's easier to sell something in which you believe, and I know that the most successful salespeople I've met over the years are passionate about the value of their products. The fervor of the salesperson, however, isn't a good gauge of the tool's fitness for your business.

Learning how to deal with all of your newfound vendor friends is one of the more difficult jobs you inherit when you become a CIO. Become too buddy-buddy and you lose your objectivity; treat them as if they're inconsequential and you risk alienating a good source of information and support when you need it. Over the years, a few rules have helped me improve my batting average of good decisions.

First, treat the salespeople who call on you with respect. One of my pet peeves is the manager or CIO who doesn't return phone calls. If you aren't interested in what they have to sell, let them know it. Those vendors who are such a bother to you are human beings trying to earn a living and their time is valuable to them, if not to you.

Having negotiating leverage is fun. When the person across the table is desperate to close the deal because it's the end of the quarter, it takes restraint not to squeeze out that last penny. Instead, leave those pennies on the table. More than once, I've had to ask for some noncontractual help, and I've been glad that our negotiations concluded on a pleasant note.

While many vendors want to be your friend, not all of them deserve your confidence. Be reasonably skeptical about receiving value until convinced otherwise. To quote a former president, "Trust, but verify."

Finally, confide in your newfound buddy that if you're pleased, you'll tell everyone you know--and you'll be just as vocal if misled or disappointed. After all, friends should talk openly to friends.

Herbert W. Lovelace shares his experiences (changing most names, including his own, to protect the guilty) as CIO of a multibillion-dollar international company. Send him E-mail at [email protected].

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