Yes to conferences and dinners, no to cold calling and e-mails

Sales and marketing teams have a tough time approaching the C-Suite to sell their products.

When it comes to IT, many of these teams try to get in touch directly with the CIO but with hundreds, if not thousands, of technology vendors doing the same CIOs are inundated with pitches.

So what is the best way to get in contact with them?

At Computing’s Tech & Marketing Innovation Forum in London last week, four CIOs: Damian Smith, Head of IT at England and Wales Cricket Board, Nick Ioannou, Head of IT at Ratcliffe Groves Partnership, Karl Hoods, CIO of Save the Children UK, and James Robbins, CIO at Northumbrian Water Group explained what works, and what doesn’t work, when it comes to pitching products.

All four of the CIOs agreed that cold calling and e-mailing the CIOs directly doesn’t work.

“The initial marketing and sales engine doesn’t really cut it – it’s just annoying, and cuts into our day. And those companies get a bad reputation, meaning that even if we did want to buy something from them, the chances are we won’t now because they’ve [wasted] a number of our staff’s time for the past few months,” said Ioannou.

But the CIOs also agreed that events, such as roundtables, dinners and conferences can work.

Smith suggested that exhibitions and conferences are the most beneficial to him, but added that he doesn’t always look to the top vendor conferences.

“I look for things that are slightly left-field. As we are an interesting sized and shaped organisation, the Gartner Magic Quadrant ‘top right’ doesn’t apply to a business like ours. So we are looking at the things other vendors are doing including those specifically related to sport,” he said.

Ionnou added that his most recent IT purchase actually came from attending a conference. “I saw a demo, sat in on a presentation, then had a webinar, and went back and negotiated on pricing,” he said.

The key for him was that he could speak face-to-face with the sales people, meaning that he could “ask them all of the awkward questions there and then”.

Dinners can work too – but invites shouldn’t look like a generic e-mail and, while, the CIO is there, they want to hear about actual use cases.

“I think practical applications of how the product or service has actually achieved, rather than ‘this is how you cut your costs by X’ – we’d rather find that out by speaking to a customer,” said Smith.

Meeting with peers

CIOs find out a lot about vendors and products by networking with each other.

Smith explained that he meets with fellow CIOs in supporting organisations on a quarterly basis to share inside knowledge of what kinds of technology works and which products don’t.

Hoods added that he collaborates with other CIOs in the charity sector, but also likes to look outside the sector as that is where a lot of other innovation is happening.

Meanwhile, Robbins said that he is regularly involved in roundtable discussions to understand how other CIOs have got on with suppliers and services.

Making things work differently

So how can sales teams use e-mails or phone calls to pitch their ideas to the organisation in question?

Hoods suggested that sales shouldn’t focus their attention on the CIO – but on his or her leadership team.

“If my head of operations came up to me and said ‘we had an interesting conversation with x, do you want to have a chat with them’, that would be much more interesting for me than looking over 50 e-mails chasing me for a response,” he said.

Either way, he believes that the ‘push’ technique used by sales teams, in which they pitch CIOs doesn’t work – it’s the ‘pull’ technique that does, whether that is through social media or networking events.

Robbins sympathises with sales and marketing teams who find it tough to pitch to the right people within an organisation.

“Companies need to go a bit further than just put the website up and a number for head office,” he said, adding that this leads to sales teams trying to connect over LinkedIn without knowing what the commercial responsibility or attitude to decision making is of that particular person.

Because of this, Northumbrian Water has long-term partnerships with vendors, which Robbins said enables the company to get cutting-edge products first.

He said that a decision certainly isn’t going to be made based on an email sent by a sales person.

“The process is a lot more complex because, depending on the organisation, you may have a systems integrator partner and an ERP software partner integrating too – so many conversations have to happen before you get to a buying decision,” said Robbins.

But sometimes the traditional method of emailing CIOs can work.

“There is a subconscious thing where you’re looking for something at the same time, and you’ve been sent emails about a particular vendor in that space – it does make you think of them,” said Smith.

Sooraj Shah is Group Features Editor for Computing, V3 and the Inquirer.