Selling to CIOs

Selling to CIOs is difficult, but it’s not impossible. Although most CIOs are busy and inundated with technical sales calls, companies that succeed at selling to CIOs have uncovered a handful of effective strategies for converting CIO prospects to satisfied customers.

If your organization wants to become even more effective at selling to CIOs, Walker Sands is here to help. Simply contact our Business Development Team or call us at (312) 267-0066.

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Lesson #1: Selling to CIOs Starts With Empathy

The most important skill in selling to CIOs is to empathize with the challenges they’re up against. At the most basic level, CIOs are no different than other business leaders. They’re driven by self-interest and the achievement of a set of objectives for their IT organizations.

If CIOs meet organizational objectives, they advance their careers. But if CIOs fail to meet their organizations’ objectives, they may find themselves out on the street looking for new job opportunities.

In essence, great CIOs want to be the best CIOs they can be. They recognize that the only way they can do that is by selecting great technology vendors. It’s a symbiotic relationship that produces a win-win for CIOs, their companies and your business.

Your ability to make a CIO successful influences the CIO’s willingness to establish a business relationship and implement your technology products or services.

Lesson #2: You Can’t Sell to CIOs If You Don’t Meet CIOs

One of the mistakes sales teams make when selling to CIOs is not securing enough opportunities to meet with CIOs. Time after time, tech firms complain that they have technology offerings capable of truly benefiting prospects’ organizations, but lack opportunities to communicate the benefits to CIOs.

High close percentages aren’t enough. You can’t meet sales goals by selling to CIOs just once or twice a year – even if you close 100 percent of the time. To hit your numbers, you’ll need to increase the number of “at-bat” opportunities by addressing common challenges, including:

  • The sales force is understaffed or unskilled. Tech firms are usually launched by tech experts, not salespeople. If your company isn’t hitting sales projections, you should consider changing the sales lineup and bringing in people and processes that have a proven track record of securing sales opportunities with CIOs. Alternatively, hire a sales consultant who can work with your existing technology sales team to raise the level of its game.
  • Your personal reputation is underwhelming. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Cultivate relationships with CIOs and individuals who are likely to become CIOs in the future. If you want to sell to Corporation X, hire a sales person who knows the company’s IT executives and has sold to them in the past. If that’s not an option, hire sales people who are adept at building new friendships with CIOs.
  • Your company’s reputation is underwhelming. If your firm hasn’t mastered marketing to CIOs, it won’t stand a chance when it tries to sell to CIOs. The average CIO receives thousands of email and phone messages each year about technology products. If your firm’s marketing department has done its job, the CIO will be more likely to return your call because he’s heard of your offering and he understands how it can add value to his organization.
    • Among other things, it’s important that:
      • Your web site is compelling and includes case studies of client success stories and technical white papers
      • The media writes nice things about your technical offerings
      • You reach out to existing customers and prospective customers on a regular basis with timely and effective HTML-based emails that explain the latest news about your company
      • Your executives appear at industry events as speakers and are viewed as thought leaders in your area of focus.
      • Your marketing department might be able to accomplish these tasks internally. But it’s often more effective to enlist the help of an outside firm, like Walker Sands.
  • Your company has a reputation – and it’s not great. The best products don’t always win the deal, but the worst technology products and services never win the deal.  A certain amount of bad buzz can be cured through new management, better marketing and improved business practices. If it’s not clear whether your company’s reputation is strong or weak, consider engaging a marketing consultant to objectively test your reputation for you and find out what prospective customers really think about you.
  • The “sales pitch” is poor. You can’t just explain what your product does and expect the CIO to determine whether she needs it or how she could use it in her organization. Your sales pitch has to quickly explain the offering and then thoroughly explain how your offering can help the CIO do her job more effectively. The pitch should also help the CIO understand how the solution helps the organization achieve its business objectives better than any other alternatives they might be considering.

Lesson #3: Understanding the Business and Technology Landscape Before You Call

As mentioned above, CIOs don’t have time to investigate how your technology offering can help them. You have to do that for them. A CIO who needed outside expertise with a PeopleSoft implementation summarized the problem: “I was very surprised that nobody took the time to figure out what I needed and call me with a solution. Instead, I wasted a lot of time trying to find somebody who could provide a solution. It shouldn’t have been that difficult.”

Unfortunately, you don’t have a crystal ball that lets you know everything that’s happening within a prospect organization. How can you know what they are trying to accomplish? Let’s take a closer look in Lesson #4.

Lesson #4: Knowing Where to Look for Business Intelligence

A truly exceptional technology company will have internal or external resources that support their sales force by researching prospective clients. If not, many resources are freely available. For example, you can go to the SEC site and see all the filings that a public company has made. You might be surprised how much valuable information is contained in those filings. And, of course, you probably already know how to use a search engine to find online references to prospective clients.

Sometimes you’ll find that an article or case study that reveals specific information about the prospect’s technology initiatives. Your understanding of those initiatives should help you better understand how your technology offering can add value. In any case, the fact that you know about the organization and understand the CIO’s needs is often appreciated.

Lesson #5: Try to Dominate a Vertical and Use Success to Fuel Success

Successful technology salespeople concentrate on specific industries. If the prospective customer is large enough, a single sales person may dedicate 100% of their efforts to that customer. Now more than ever, selling to CIOs requires specialized, focused industry expertise. Companies don’t buy technology. They buy solutions. More specifically, they buy solutions for their industry and for their companies.

Another key reason to focus on one industry at a time is that referrals and references are the primary driver of new technology sales. One IT consulting company started off by simply telling its sales people to “Go out and sell!” Not surprisingly, they had limited success, even in a booming market for outsourced technical services.

Take a moment and brainstorm about the industries your company should be pursuing. What tactical programs could be established to get in front of those industries? Maybe your marketing department should engage a public relations firm to secure speaking engagements for you at vertical-industry conferences. Or maybe they should pursue article placements in publications that focus exclusively on the vertical that you want to pursue. Your company might also want to host a seminar and invite CIOs from that particular industry to attend an event that specifically addresses challenges they may be facing in their industry.

Lesson #6: Know the Technology and Know the Competition

This one should be obvious. You can’t bluff your way through a sales call with a tech-savvy executive. In the old days, the CIO wasn’t technically savvy. That’s because all of the technically savvy people were 18 years old and weren’t old enough (or experienced enough) to become CIOs. Guess what? Those kids are now CIOs. They grew up playing with computers, implemented numerous big IT initiatives, and keep current on new technology trends. It may help to schmooze them and take them to the local professional basketball team’s games, but that’s not enough to get the job done.

If you’re in charge of building a sales force for a tech company, hire people who are technologically savvy. The perfect hire is a computer science undergraduate, ideally with an MBA, deep experience in a specific vertical industry or functional area, and previous IT selling experience. Help your sales team stay current on IT trends, and make sure they fully and intimately understand the competition and its offerings.

If you are on the front lines selling, spend as much time as you can learning about technology so that you can “talk the talk” and “walk the walk” with customers who are increasingly sophisticated, with little patience for salespeople who don’t know what they’re talking about. Lobby upper management to help you become more educated by sending you to conferences and buying you relevant technology books. Attend your competition’s seminars. Encourage your marketing department to do detailed competitive analyses on competitive offerings (or engage a marketing consultant such as Walker Sands to do it for them).

Lesson #7: Customize Your Presentations and Your Demos

Boilerplate presentations won’t cut it with today’s technology prospects. More than ever, it takes customization and an above-and-beyond effort to show prospective customers that you understood their needs and are willing to bring a strong work ethic to the engagement.

If you put the effort in and do more than your competition, you can significantly improve your success in selling to CIOs. Even a small company can slay Goliath competitors through customization and tailored demos. If senior management argues that you’re devoting too much time to the proposal process, argue that if you don’t do it and a competitor does, you won’t get the sale. Do they want to get the sale?

Lesson #8: Understand the Business of IT

When you sell to CIOS, there are basic selling principles that apply across industries. One of those is to understand the prospect organization’s business. At Walker Sands, we persuade clients that we can help them with marketing and public relations. Once we are engaged, we help with positioning, ultimately packaging up story ideas and presenting them to the media, with the hope of securing story placements. Understanding both our clients’ businesses and the unique business models of specific media outlets is essential to our success.

You have to be able to talk the talk and show that you understand the CIO’s business. If you’re oblivious to the interaction between business units and the IT department, you can’t effectively play that interaction to your advantage. Likewise, if you don’t understand common IT policies, you can’t use that knowledge in the selling process. The more you learn about how IT departments work (and where they don’t work), the better equipped you’ll be to navigate through the IT selling process.

Lesson #9: Anticipate Objections, Find Hot Buttons, and Exercise Spin Control

Basic sales training encourages you to anticipate objections and prepare your answers before the client presents the objection. In some cases, this involves turning a perceived negative into a positive. But what makes this even more challenging is the fact that the business executive can’t make the sale all by himself. To sell to CIOs, you typically need to sell to many different people to close a deal – in addition to the CIO, you also need to sell to a business executive and the IT staff. Any one of these three groups can kill a deal if they don’t like it.

A good technical salesperson knows how to spin the situation. For example, if your technology lightens the workload for in-house technology staff, don’t tell the business executive and the CIO that this will result in staff cuts. Instead, tell them that your solution will allow the existing IT staff to concentrate on more strategic projects. This helps the CIO avoid headcount reductions allow him to redeploy resources to more valuable tasks – a constant need in any IT organization.

IT staff is often frustrated with their inability to convince management to buy some new hardware and software that they want. So, you might say to the IT staff, “If you buy my network management software, you will get detailed reports that will identify deficiencies in your network. Armed with this objective quantification, it’ll be much easier to get your IT procurement requests approved in the future.” That’s music to the IT staff’s ears and, joining the business executive and the CIO, they jump on the bandwagon.

The key to success? It’s understanding what motivates people and playing those “hot buttons” to your advantage. People who are good at selling to CIOs understand those motivators implicitly and intuitively over time because they understand the business of IT. Are you able to anticipate the objections you will receive and spin your responses such that everyone is happy with your offering and wants to buy it? If not, it’s time to sit down, by with your marketing department and think about the needs of various stakeholders across the sales cycle.

Lesson #10: Selling to CIOs Is More than Just a Sales Function

You’re probably starting to notice that you’re not the Lone Ranger, out there selling your company’s offerings alone. For an organization to be truly effective at selling to CIOs, a sales mentality needs to be built into the entire organization. Marketing and technical personnel should attend sales training and should periodically participate in sales calls.

Marketing needs to get the word out to prospective customers in order for Sales to be successful. If they don’t understand how to sell and they don’t understand why sales efforts for your company win or lose, they aren’t going to be very helpful. Similarly, if the Product Development Team in technology doesn’t appreciate how to sell, they will likely create a product that is unsellable. What may seem like an unnecessary bell-and-whistle function to them may be the feature that you will get you in the door at a company you’ve been chasing for months. Creating formal feedback loops within an organization that focus on selling is a critical role of senior management.

When formal techniques that encourage integrated selling are absent, you may need to resort to informal techniques. In other words, get to know your marketing team intimately and be able to call in a few favors. The technical sales person who says “Our marketing stinks. That’s why we can’t sell this stuff,” should proactively reach out to the marketing staff and work with them on improving the marketing strategy. Similarly, it’s advantageous to get to know the technical people in the Product Development Team. You can often get them to create something specifically for you that will help close a deal – and the price may be just a few late-night pizzas.

Lesson #11: The Sale Isn’t Over Once the Contract Is Signed

You finally have been successful in selling to CIOs and have closed a deal. The commission is in the bank. Is your job done?

Absolutely not. You need to make sure the client is happy. Otherwise, you may not have a good reference account and you may never get referrals to other prospects. Remember that in technology selling, the vast majority of sales to CIOs are driven by reference accounts and referrals.

In addition to getting a referral, staying in touch with somebody you’ve sold to can have other benefits. First and foremost, there are cross-selling opportunities. Once you’re in the door, you learn more about the customer’s business. Now, you don’t need a crystal ball to tell you what challenges are facing the CIO. You’re already there, inside the organization, either as a consultant or as a dedicated sales person who returns frequently to ensure that your hardware or software products are delivering value.

Another important benefit of not abandoning the customer after the sale is driven by CIO turnover. The half-life of CIOs is much shorter than most CIOs would like. It’s not uncommon for CIOs to jump to new companies every two years. If the CIO were to stay in one place for his entire career, you might just get one sale from him or her. If you keep up relationships and provide exceptional customer service, you may find that you get five sales from the same person over the course of a decade of selling. Similarly, if you leave and go to a new company, you can revisit your relationship with the CIO to sell your new offering. But that’s only possible if you made sure that the CIO was happy with what you sold her the last time and you have made an effort to stay in contact with her.

Lesson #12: Miscellaneous Tips and Techniques for Selling to CIOs

  • Choose an Appropriate Title. Make your title “business development” or “consultant” instead of using a title that mentions “sales” explicitly. The profession of sales carries some baggage and you’ll do better calling on prospective clients as a consultant or prospective business development partner, rather than calling on them as a salesperson.
  • Befriend the Executive Assistant. Creating a relationship with the CIO’s assistant can be the difference between getting in the door and not getting in the door. Offend that assistant and you’ve probably lost the sale.
  • Find the Research Screener. Most CIOs have somebody who reads all the research that comes from outfits like Gartner Group and Meta Group. They also read the computer trade publications. They then cull out a small number of “important” articles that they forward on to the CIO to read. If you can find out who screens magazine articles and research for the CIOs and get your articles in front of them, you may find that you can influence the CIO’s worldview to your advantage.
  • Know When to Call. Call in the early hours or in the late hours after most people will have left the office. During the day, it’s tough to get past the CIO’s executive assistant. However, if you call the office at 6:30 AM, you may find that the CIO is at work getting a jump on the day and will answer the phone himself because his assistant isn’t in yet. Similarly, some CIOs work late into the night and you can catch them then.
  • Attend Industry Events. Some CIOs are featured speakers at industry conferences and you can learn about their business challenges by listening to them speak. You may also be able to talk to them directly during a coffee break. Be sure to avoid stalking the CIO in an obnoxious manner – that’s a sure way to annoy him or her and lose a sale.
  • Identify Circles of Influence. Every CIO has a group of people that he listens to concerning IT decisions. Maybe there’s an analyst at Forrester or one of the other research houses that he looks to for advice. Don’t underestimate the power of the analysts in influencing purchasing decisions! Maybe the CIO calls his former boss for advice or a peer CIO in a non-competitive industry. Find out who influences the CIO and get your messaging in front of those key influencers.

Need Help with Marketing to CIOs?

If your organization is struggling in its efforts to increase CIO selling success, or selling success with other stakeholders such as IT managers, it’s probably time to pursue some additional marketing and media relations initiatives. Walker Sands can help. Simply contact our Business Development Team or call us at (312) 267-0066.

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