In the past, I’ve blogged about the new sales cycle and how it changed completely over the past several years. As a follow-up, here are current insights from an executive roundtable hosted by the Georgia CxO Forum, the Social Executive Council and TAG Social.
At the session, tech execs opened up about how they approach the buying process, and what they’re looking for from vendors. Bjarke Ormstrup, VP, IT at EndoChoice, Martin Schmidler, VP of IT with Unipro Foodservice and Dan Webber, CTO & CFO of Monacle Health affirmed the fact that the sales process for technology solutions has been turned inside out.
Technology buyers know what they need, and they often have a roadmap the stretches one to three years in the future. As a result, they’re looking for solutions to a well-defined set of problems.
Selling to the CTO Starts with Research
Dan Weber explained that he and his peers have thoroughly researched options through a variety of channels before sitting down with vendors. Usually, he says, “We know more about the product than the person selling it.” Buyers develop a deep understanding of capabilities, pricing, discount levels and vendor reputation “before we take the first call.”
While research is critical, one CTO pointed out that vendors are not using the same language to describe problems as their buyers are. Martin Schmidler explained that he finds vendor websites loaded with features and functions instead of real solutions. It’s very rare, he says, to discover one who leads with an understanding of their clients’ problems and how their offering solves it.
An IT buyer’s search for solutions may start on Google with an expression that describes the problem at hand. Since most vendors aren’t speaking in these customer-focused terms, buyers must poke around the search results until they find the vendor language that describes offerings that fit. Then they can search using these terms to narrow the field.
Martin shared that it’s unusual for a vendor to pop up in the first round search results with problem-oriented content, making the research process more challenging. As a provider, imagine how much more productive it would be if your company appeared on the top when the buyer’s problem was entered in the search box?
Because simple web searches don’t yield all the answers, buyers rely on social networks as well–and not the ones that you might think of immediately. They’re not turning to Facebook, Twitter, or even LinkedIn to identify potential partners. Instead, they’re accessing their peer networks of CIOs and CTOs who openly share their knowledge and solutions. They rely on trusting relationships that develop over time.
Relationships and Reputation
These industry networks allow buyers to connect with people who have experienced similar situations and don’t mind helping others. Members of these groups can share pointers on which vendors are reliable and trustworthy, and which are not.
When you’re selling to this group, your personal reputation is even more important than your company’s brand. As one panelist said, “I’m looking for a 2 AM vendor.” That’s the person who be available when the chips are down and he needs help. This doesn’t mean he’s going to call every night at 2 AM, but when he does, he need an answer. In return, he expects to build a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship that’s not just about the dollars.
By the same token, Bjarke mentioned that it may take as long as five or even ten years to develop the kind of relationship that leads to business. He explained, “I may not need you now, but when I do, I’ll know exactly who to call.”
This is much longer than most sales reps would like, but the reality is that a vendor partner who proves himself over time by providing answers and helping buyers find the right solutions to a variety of problems will be of more value and is more likely to win business in the long term.
A few years ago tech buyers relied on the RFP process to help them identify the right vendors for their needs. With buying cycles compressed, no one has time for a six-month RFP process. They need solutions quickly to keep their plans on track. Add to that the fact that, “anyone can game an RFP,” according to Bjarke, and the value of that exercise is dwindling.
Today, there is more emphasis on using proof of concept to validate vendor qualifications. These small, speedy implementations can show that a solution works as advertised. When it does, there’s an opportunity to expand the footprint, scaling the business over time.
Contracts, when they exist, are also shorter than they used to be. Buyers demand a way to exit unproductive relationships. If a vendor doesn’t live up to expectations or fails to show that they are in the relationship for the long haul, it’s easier than ever for a buyer to disengage.
As the seller, if you do not deliver, word will spread. Buyers who are actively speaking to their peers both online and off will share information and offer warnings to others when appropriate.
At an organizational level, technology vendors need to develop a culture that inspires their people to focus on more than immediate gratification. Individuals at these firms should remember that their personal reputation is just as important as (if not more than) the brand of the company they represent. An offering that incorporates the right features and functions can seal a deal, but a mindset that drives one to consistently solve a buyers’ problems can propel a career.
Whatever business you’re in, it pays to monitor the trends. Sales habits and buying processes can evolve rapidly, and you have to stay ahead of the curve. Tune in to your customers’ needs, their concerns and frustrations, and you will accelerate the growth of your business while competitors that turn a deaf ear fall behind.