Manage Learn to apply best practices and optimize your operations.

Besieged by Vendor Communications: How to Handle Those Cold Calls

Learning how to winnow the worthwhile vendor pitches from useless cold calls is an executive art. These five strategies can help.

If you feel you can run but can't hide from hounding sales reps, you need to hear these CIOs' strategies. You might even find something worth buying.

Steve Smith's best defense against cold-calling vendors is a No. 2 pencil.

As the CIO of Tarrant County in Texas, Smith relies on the decidedly low-tech writing instrument to disable the bar codes that emblazon the attendee cards he receives at most vendor shows these days. The bar codes, which contain demographic information and are designed for easy scanning by vendor representatives on the show floor, offer an open invitation to cold calls, something that Smith -- like time-pressed CIOs everywhere -- wants to avoid.

So Smith takes his trusty pencil and draws three imperceptible horizontal lines through the bar code; when the scanner doesn't work, Smith is quick to provide a business card he's had specially printed for such occasions. The card contains a secondary email address to which unsuspecting vendors happily send pitches regarding their latest IT wares.

But that's not to say these solicitations go into a black hole. Smith knows that a vendor he's never heard of may actually offer something he needs. So he's assigned three IT employees to regularly troll the junk email box.

"Every so often, we do get a vendor with something interesting," he says.

Dealing with the onslaught of vendor communications is a delicate dance CIOs must master. Though there are times CIOs may actively seek out a vendor they've met at a trade show or that has authored a white paper, the rest of the time they are challenged to winnow down the number of cold calls they field and respond to without closing the door on a potentially valuable technology.

"It's just like free agency in football: You may only ask one of every 1,000 to come in, and even that one may not make the team," says Smith. He has hired vendors this way, though. For example, he recently signed on with Sonic Software, whose service-oriented architecture he first heard about via a message sent to the secondary email box.

The need for CIOs to preserve their precious time has resulted in techniques that are a study in time management. Those who do it well minimize the misses and maximize the hits. Here is their advice.

Don't go it alone. If you can, have an assistant pick up the phone, or assign someone on your staff to manage vendor traffic.

At Starz Entertainment Group, a privately held movie channel, Vice President of IT Gary Pfeiffer offloads most of the responsibility for handling vendor inquiries to his manager of IT security and architecture. Tarrant County's Smith has staff check the dedicated email box. Bill Schlageter, the vice president and CIO at $1.7-billion dental products company Dentsply International, never takes cold calls. "If I did, I would spend the entire day talking with vendors," he quips. (He also never volunteers his email address.) It falls to his assistant to handle calls.

Request product literature. With materials in hand, you can efficiently review all recent inquiries at once rather than field one-off calls that take you away from what you were doing before the phone rang.

At Dentsply, Schlageter's assistant asks callers to send him literature, which Schlageter then reviews regularly -- usually every two weeks, on weekends. If the information piques his interest, he holds on to it, and occasionally he'll even speak with the vendor reps, who almost always follow up with a phone call.

At Starz, Mike Ethridge is the go-to guy for vendors. As Pfeiffer's "technology filter," Ethridge will listen to vendors if he knows or has heard of the company, but he asks the 10% he hasn't heard of for case studies and white papers. He then follows up if the information is relevant. "You have to manage your time," he says.

Treg Russell, CIO of Texas Medical Liability Trust, a $200-million physician-owned insurance provider, usually avoids vendor calls using caller ID ("I don't have a lot of out-of-state vendors, so I don't answer a long-distance number that I don't recognize," he says). But when he does find himself on the phone with a vendor sales rep, he asks for additional information to be sent via email.

Winnow it down. Keep an eye out for technologies related to problems that need solving in your organization or projects you have on tap. When Russell of Texas Medical sees a pitch that might fit a project he has on the boards in the next six months, he creates a contact in Outlook and files the emailed product information for easy retrieval later. "Timing is everything," he says.

At Dentsply, Schlageter recently received information relevant to two projects -- one regarding data classification within a data warehouse and another regarding a wide area network. He asked the managers responsible for those projects to follow up with the vendors.

Consider a face-to-face meeting. Dedicating a block of time for vendors to come in to plead their case isn't the most common practice, but it has worked for Tarrant County.

For the past two years, Smith has been holding quarterly meetings where he lays out the county's IT budget and the expectations for vendors. In addition to the 25 or so core vendors the county works with, "we want to hear what vendors have to offer, so we may invite others," Smith says, though all companies that do business with the state must get on its approved vendor list. Smith doesn't want just any vendor rep to walk through the door, either. He asks vendors to send a regional sales manager or higher. "If they show up and bring someone higher up the food chain, that shows they have a real interest," he says.

Smith says the system has worked so far. "For us, we're not bothered constantly by vendors, and vendors know what our expectations are, so they can schedule resources and plan ahead," he says. A private organization may want to handle some parts of the process differently, however. Tarrant County's budget is public, so laying out the details for vendors isn't an issue; private-sector organizations will want to hold their budgets and IT plans close to the vest. Also, competing vendors may be reluctant to sit together in the same conference room and speak frankly. In these cases, Smith and his staff offer to host private discussions during the meeting.

Have low expectations. Across all industries, only about 10% of cold calls typically result in new business, and that's after multiple contacts from the vendor. Vendors know this, which is why they cast such a wide net. Nonetheless, it pays to remember that you are the customer and deserve the vendor's respect, whether in the amount of time you are willing to spend on the phone or the manner of contact you request.

Unlike Smith, who surreptitiously scratches out his trade show name badge, Texas Medical's Russell recently went to a conference and wanted to hear back from a vendor he met there. Then six months went by before he got a call from a salesperson. "If it takes a company that long to follow up with you, that tells you something about that company," he says. Indeed it does.

Megan Santosus, a former senior editor at CIO Decisions, is now a features editor for Write to her at [email protected].

Dig Deeper on Small-business IT strategy