message in a bottle
PHOTO: Susanne Nilsson

Several years ago, I was working at an ETL company, researching concerns CIOs have about data. At the end of a call, a CIO of one of the largest pharmaceutical companies asked me whether as a friend, he could share something with me. I said, yes of course. He told me the ETL company’s "sales reps were not very good at selling to pain points in contrast to another market participant. Your guys are still selling products."

Messaging Matters

Messaging is always critical whatever size company you work for. And the last point for delivering the message is always the salesperson.

In their book "Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind," Al Ries and Jack Trout write, “to succeed in our overcommunicated society, a company must create a position that takes into consideration not only a company’s own strengths and weaknesses, but those of its competitors as well." Geoffrey Moore extends this idea in his  book "Crossing the Chasm," writing, “the goal of positioning is to create a space inside the target customer’s head called the best buy for this type of situation."  Moore goes on to suggest organizations answer six questions before a sales representative contacts a customer or a marketing person runs a campaign. The results from the six questions form a statement that defines a company's primary differentiation.

Given this backdrop, I wanted to get a sense of where technology buyers are today. So I asked CIOs what they thought during a recent CIO chat. Here are the key insights I walked away with.

Related Article: Sales Presentation Tips That Skip the Dog and Pony Show

CIOs Want Solutions, Not Sales Pitches

CIOs were clear about what they want from startups and mature companies alike. Here are five things that every sales and marketing person should consider before initiating their efforts.

  1. Listen before talking and develop a relationship before selling. IT Director Adam Martin said, “there is nothing more irritating than a vendor trying to sell me something I do not need the first time they talk to me.”
  2. Realize there will be a businessperson in the room. As part of aligning better with the business, CIOs are involving business partners earlier in the process. My friend, Allen Hackney, former CIO of John Hancock, told me “if a vendor comes in talking about a new widget in tech language, his business counterpart’s eyes will glaze over and he will send them down in the organization. The conversation would go in the opposite direction, however, with a discussion of a business problem." CIO Paige Francis joked that she is the person “with their eyes glazed over. Everyone knows that. Smart vendors know their audience.”
  3. Talk about solutions vs. products. Francis continued, “I need the what, why and how. In that order. No vs.” CIO Martin Davis agreed and said, “talk solutions, then prove those solutions actually work. Too many vendor presentations propose features that either don’t work or cost an arm and a leg to use.”
  4. Know who the decision-maker is and what point to make with each stakeholder. Former CIO Theresa Rowe said, “vendors often confused who the decision-maker is, as if it were one person. Worse yet, they present technology details to the CFO, who was the financial decision-maker. And they talked about the ‘processor bus’ to the CEO."
  5. Have the right discussion at the right time. Former CIO Raechelle Clemmons said, “everything depends on the stage of the sales process and the audience. High-level, early stages should be about what problems do we solve. Here you should share the solution. Later stages should be deep dives with the technical folks. It should be how do we solve it? In other words, the features/capabilities.” CIO Milos Topic agreed and said, “one should begin at the desired outcome then reverse engineer the path forward. Features are nice, but if they are not applicable to our needs then they won’t be included in our solution.”

Related Article: No Country for Old Sales Reps

Product Companies Come and Go, Solution Companies Last

The message matters, whether you are large business or a nascent startup. This means businesses need to do their homework before they call on potential customers. They need to know the business value to customers and the likely customer that will buy their solutions. It’s a move from leading with your unique strengths to one where carefully constructed teaching interactions very deliberately lead the customer to your unique strengths. Your solution isn’t the subject of your teaching, but the natural outgrowth of your teaching.

As Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson note in "The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation," from the customer’s perspective, the real value of the interaction isn’t what you sell, it’s the quality of the insight you provide as part of the sales interaction itself. I'll close with the words of analyst Jack Gold: “as a vendor, you really don't need to talk to me about solutions to my problems ... unless you want to stay in business long term! Product companies come and go often. Solution companies stick around a long time.”