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Sunday, 08 March 2015 20:54

The CIO and the scourge of the unsolicited sales call


Unsolicited sales calls are a blight on the CIO's time. Yet, any enterprise is itself going to be sales-oriented. Is there a middle ground?

Regularly when I speak with new IT Managers or CIOs they comment on the sheer number of unsolicited sales calls they receive. I commiserate and we share some tales of woe. It is a shared problem, universal for anyone in a position identified as an 'influencer' or 'decision maker'.

However, we must be pragmatic and realistic. Sales exist; sometimes we even hear of useful things. More than this, unless we work in government or for non-profits, invariably our own organisations are sales-driven. It's not reasonable to hate on sales when our own salaries depend on sales.

However, sales approaches can be better - oh, vastly better. Here are some things I tell our salespeople, based on my own experiences. It's not all bad; there are some things sales teams can do right.

1. Don't always make the phone your first option

My time is valuable. Indeed, it's pretty unusual that I don't have my mind focused on a problem. Telephones are intrusive devices. I pretty much have the view that when someone phones they are implicitly stating what they want to talk about is more important than whatever I was doing.

You may find that arrogant, but consider that at each moment of the day a good manager is thinking what is the one thing that they alone can be doing which adds the greatest value to the business. This is how managers prioritise, it is the basis for delegation, and things which interrupt this flow are stealing time and productivity.

I can respond to an e-mail when I have the opportunity. I can consider it, I can prioritise it. I cannot do anything with a phone call except take it or ignore it. If I am occupied or concentrating I will ignore it, and if I ignore it your message is not being delivered.

Given that most every salesperson who phones me is calling from a technology-related company it is surprising that non-voice options are not used more regularly.

2. Don't ask me if it is a good time to call

Ok, you've got me on the phone. Make it count. Anybody who starts the call with "Have I caught you at a good time?", "Is this a good time to talk?" or any variation is wasting time. Just assume from the beginning that I wasn't sitting around, feet on the desk, sipping a beverage wishing someone would phone me.

In a similar fashion, don't ask me if I got an e-mail from you. Maybe I did and deleted it, but chances are I didn't. Unless you were memorable - and if so, perhaps I would have responded - then I don't remember specifics of arbitrary unsolicited e-mails. You're wasting my time if your first question is "Did you get the e-mail we sent you?"

3. Get to the point

In the same vein, don't make me guess what your call is about. I have lost count of the number of sales pitches where I have had to explicitly interrupt and ask, "Is this a sales call?" or even ask what the actual product is.

One particular memory is of a Melbourne-based telephone bill analysis company who called and spoke at great length about how their product was a SaaS solution and this meant I didn't have to host it myself and didn't need any upfront expenditure and didn't have to maintain infrastructure and on and on and on. Yet, what were they selling? It wasn't the general concept of SaaS. I just needed them to get to the point. I had to interrupt and drag out of the salesman that he was ultimately selling a product that analysed phone bills. I should not have to guess and if you are trying to sell me your product by first trying to sell me on the technology then you've come around it the wrong way.

4. Don't ask me to divulge information about our operations

I have a policy that I do not divulge information about internal workings or finances to unsolicited callers. I am not going to tell you when our telephones go out of contract or what our PABX system is. I am not going to tell you what anti-virus product we use. I am not going to tell you how much we spend on photocopier and printer per-page maintenance. Tell me about your product and what makes it compelling and if I wish to do business with you I can provide relevant information then.

It's partly that I don't trust you are not a competitor, and it's also partly that it's none of your business. I don't even know who you are except for a voice on the phone.

5. Don't assume you know where I am

Many a time salespeople tell me their head sales manager is "going to be in my area" or they "have run fibre right past your office". Yet, I work for national, sometimes international, businesses. You should not assume that because you drove past a single office that your call has not been transferred to a different city. You should not assume that I am in the same office, city or state as the CFO. Do some basic research before calling.

6. Don't phone me to ask if you can e-mail me something

This just makes me not want to deal with you. Either send your e-mail or don't. I really don't care. However, I care if you phone me about something which is trite and time-wasting.

7. Don't call me if I put out a tender and you didn't respond

This is pretty specific, so let me explain. Several years ago I put out a tender for an international company seeking telecommunication solutions for landline, mobile and international calls, for an international data network, and for dedicated server hosting. This was a big tender. In the end, we signed a multimillion dollar five-year contract.

I was surprised that one particular major telecoms company didn't submit any response. Their silence was equivalent to stating "Don't opt us" in the decision.

However, months later I received sales calls from representatives of this telco. I asked them if they were crazy, that I had already put out a tender which was now in the final competitive stages. Ironically, this person's e-mail signature indicated his manager was the person I had invited to respond to the tender. I received a reply that the manager (correctly) had previously dealt with our CFO at a different business - so he wrote to him asking if he could meet but did not get a reply. I could not say why our CFO did not respond but it is irrelevant; the tender document did not refer to the CFO. Any questions and the final submission was to be sent to me. I could not fathom how somebody occupying a national sales manager role for a large telco could seriously offer this up as their explanation for why they did not submit a tender. Essentially, he asked questions of someone else, didn't get a reply, and never followed it up. That potentially cost them tens of millions of dollars of revenue.

I continued, as months went on, to get calls and approaches from different salespeople in this very same telco. I just forwarded on the exact same correspondence each time. Sometimes I never heard back, but mostly I got apologies and expressions of irritation with their own company's lack of action.

So what can a salesperson do right?

This is the big question; I don't want to just complain that salespeople call me. It's a reality of business. Indeed, sometimes a salesperson may well have a product I am interested in and was previously unaware of.

I'd like to propose that what I consider "lazy" sales calls be put to an end; don't simply go through a phone book and phone everyone. Do some actual research. What companies are you targeting? Why? What is their growth? How many offices do they have? What makes your offering so compelling? Why would I choose to do business with you?

Think about it, consider it, and package it in a punchy, direct, to-the-point spiel. Write to me with a headline that gets my attention and makes me want to read on.

If you must call, be direct. Tell me why you are calling, what you offer, and what it costs.

Let's turn sales back into a profession, skilfully and strategically obtaining results, not simply a numbers game where you just dial random numbers and stammer out an unprepared pitch.

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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