Reps weakest link in vendor sales

Dealing with vendor sales reps is an "absolute waste of time", and a new approach is needed to match IT products and services to business needs, according to a Computerworld US study.

Despite showing some pretty healthy attitudes to innovative products and to CIO buying patterns, the study showed most IT managers viewed contact with sales reps as the weak link in the buying processThe study (in conjunction with US executive advisory firm Toffler Associates and Charles River Ventures) which canvassed 227 CIOs, vendors, early-stage start-ups, venture capitalists, systems integrators, academics, journalists, consultants and analysts in December 2001 -- drew a mix of positive and extremely negative views.

On the good side, all 227 participants agreed that despite the bad US economy, CIOs are continuing to seek and buy innovative and cost-effective solutions to specific problems. It also found many vendors have innovative and cost-effective products that should be deployed.

In Australia, TMP IT operations manager George Curtis views the situation with some healthy scepticism, saying: "It may be all well and good for clients to be offered the best product available, but will it provide real benefit to the business? Does the value outweigh the cost?"

Like any other resource, suppliers also need to be managed and Curtis recommends businesses reduce the number of IT companies they deal with to avoid duplication.

Sales reps do not necessarily approach the CFO or CIO, but will pitch to anyone they can get to, Curtis claims. In the current climate, there are weeks when the firm "gets more pitches than a baseball game", he gibes.

If you're struggling to make the encounter with sales reps worth your time, first identify if there is any value in meeting with them, Curtis says. "It's important to do this in the initial phone conversation as there's no point in wasting each other's time if a positive outcome is unlikely."

Also, be aware of common tactics used by cold callers in particular to hook prospective clients, often asking managers for 20 minutes of their time to meet. What those reps fail to realise, Curtis says, is that if they can't make an impression during the initial phone call, "then the rest is pointless".

Ideas International senior analyst Bernie Esner is a firm believer that market segmentation, and targeting and positioning specific IT solutions are central to a smart sales strategy. He says generally vendors' sales messages are "very mixed", which can confuse the marketplace.

According to Esner, there is a mix up of market segmentation in the hardware space particularly in the desktop and notebook PCs, PDAs, projectors, monitors and printers sectors. For instance, some monitor vendors define their CRT and LCD monitors, as well as notebooks, by segment, while the same PC company aims desktops at the general mass market.

What distinguishes a company is not brand recognition or a vendor's financial standing, he says, but efficient use of product information achieved through solid database management. "Sales reps now advise clients instead of informing them, as clients are now very street-wise in their purchasing," he says.

Overall, TMP's Curtis feels the onus is on suppliers to the IT industry to bridge the vendor-CIO and IT manager disconnect. "It's up to the vendor to find the right people to talk about the right business problems in the client company. And when the client needs a product or solution, the vendor is [obligated] to do that research."

However, the reality is that vendors are prone to "research subscription addiction". Many vendor reps canvassed in the Computerworld US survey said they must spend their limited "customer awareness" budgets on courting consultancies like Forrester, Giga and Gartner, leaving little money to educate their sales forces on specific client problems and opportunities. w Thornton May, a member of Toffler Associates contributed to this articleDo rep calls waste your time? E-mail comments to Helen_Han@idg.com.au.

Spot the difference

TMP and vendor salespeople discuss several areas of IT management like contract negotiations, maintenance agreements, telecomms services and service level agreements.

Good operators do their homework and contact the right person, he said, but novices go straight to the top, only to be passed down the food chain.

George Curtis, IT operations manager at TMP, said sales reps do not necessarily approach the CFO or CIO, but will pitch to anyone they can get to.

But securing that first meeting is no reason for cockiness. Reps should always be prepared to discuss upfront the "reality factor" -- price -- and deliver the value proposition succinctly.

Nonetheless, Curtis concedes there are many "excellent" vendor account managers who do speak the customer's language, because they tend to have been around the traps. "They know their stuff -- the client and the business. And while this takes time and effort, those things are an investment in future sales."

However, there are also those whose product knowledge comes from "reading a box", he added with tongue in cheek.

"It's all about hot buttons," he adds. "Know who to talk to, what to say and how to say it and a meeting takes place."

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