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Podium: Moving to the Vendor Company Side of the Negotiating Table

A CIO shares his experience as the guy on the other side of the negotiating table, pitching to skeptics.

Recently I got a chance to move from being a CIO at an end-user company to one at a vendor company, and I learned about life on the other side. In fact, because the company is relatively small -- it has fewer than 50 employees -- the sales team reports to me. The majority of our clients are health care companies, and management wanted me to use my experience as a health care CIO to provide insight to my sales staff; the reps needed to understand CIOs' perspective and the many priorities that compete for CIOs' time every day.

It was a curious twist: After years of fending off vendor sales reps who had plagued me with email, phone calls and mail solicitations, I had the opportunity to help create reps who would truly serve the needs of their CIO clients.

But my new role required a change in perspective. I had to start seeing things from the vendor side. That meant dealing with sales quotas and revenue forecasts, and being concerned with profitability and delivery schedules. Yikes. Talk about being a fish out of water.

Jumping in With Both Feet

My first sales call was memorable and educational. At first I just listened as our rep discussed our company and products. But I couldn't sit quietly for long. Eventually I jumped in and asked questions about the client's business goals and vision for the company.

It was exciting and nerve-wracking. I looked for signs that the client was uneasy or just trying to get through the meeting : Was he looking at his watch or glancing at his BlackBerry? (Hey, I've been there, done that.) When it became clear he wasn't, I continued asking questions.

For the next 30 minutes, the client and I had a great dialogue about his business. It reminded me of many roundtable sessions I had participated in over the years. But then the sales rep gently interrupted and let the client know that our allotted time had expired; would he like to continue or schedule a follow-up meeting? I almost answered him before I realized he wasn't talking to me but to the client. Whoops.

On the ride back to the office, I asked the rep to give me honest feedback about the visit, and he did. He told me I hadn't asked the right questions, and what was more, we hadn't gotten any commitment to do business. In his view, our chances of landing the client were nearly zero. I replied that I thought it was more important to build rapport, show the client that we truly cared about his company's business and prove that we wanted to truly offer value, not just get a purchase order. (As it turned out, we landed the client.)

The Give-and-Take Process
Since that first meeting, it's been a reciprocal learning process. I've taught my staff the kinds of questions to ask and how to respect the time of the CIO by offering insight from that side of the table. In turn my reps have taught me that sales is vital to the survival of the business, a lesson that other CIOs need to learn.

And to you, fellow CIOs, I pass on this advice: Ask your vendor for help when you need it. The better ones recognize the value of a relationship and will help you deliver on your promise to align technology with business. If yours doesn't, you should have an alternative vendor waiting in the wings and be prepared to switch vendors if your needs aren't met. Expect more, and you may be pleasantly surprised.

Rich De Brino is CIO and VP of Advances in Technology, an IT outsourcing and technology provider that specializes in health care and finance.
Write to him at Podium@ciodecisions.com.

This was last published in December 2006

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