I was flying to LaGuardia last week—well, to be more precise, I was in a plane on the ground waiting to fly to LaGuardia (the airlines having established a policy that any flight involving a TechRepublic employee is forbidden from departing on time, but that’s another story). Anyway, I was sitting there, trying not to think about the fact that this particular airplane was probably 15 years older than my minivan (which is looking a bit ragged), when I saw a perfect example of a problem that affects just about every IT manager I talk to these days. In this column, I’ll illustrate the problem of vendor sales team inflation, and present some possible solutions.

Is it a sales team—or a sales division?
Across the aisle from me were a man and woman wearing golf shirts featuring their company logo, and matching khakis. The man had one of those super-thin Sony notebooks open on his lap, and said to the woman, “OK, I’m working on the meeting agenda. I figure you can start with the introductions and sort of review how the two companies got to this point. Then I’ll do a brief overview of our company’s history and mission. OK?”

“Sure,” she said.

He goes on, “Then Bobby and Tai can get into the product itself.” He looked over his shoulder, and called ”Hey, Bobby! Tai!”

Two guys popped their heads up over the head cushions, wearing the same company golf shirts. They quickly reviewed their part in the meeting and then sat back down in their seats.

The man typed some more, and then said, “That’ll get us up to lunch. After lunch, it’ll be time for the competitive analysis and financing discussions.”

Incredulous, I just stare as he turns and talks across the aisle to the two people sitting behind me, and goes over their contributions. I’m beginning to wonder if I wandered onto the wrong plane—a company charter.

He finishes by telling one of the folks behind me, “Check with Jer back there and see if he finished making the changes to the PowerPoint I gave him last night. If not, he should have time during the flight.” The guy behind me dutifully starts talking to someone behind him.

“Seven people on a single sales call?” I ask myself.

The leader turns back and talks to his seatmate. “By then, it’ll be time to take them out to dinner. We can do any follow-up at the hotel tonight, or after we fly back tomorrow.”

The captain came over the PA at that point, telling us we were next in line for departure, and I devoted my full attention to my usual runway ritual: repeatedly telling myself how much safer air travel is than car travel, when measured on a comparative-miles basis.

Who are you trying to impress?
Most IT managers spend a good deal of time meeting with vendors or prospective vendors. If you work for a technology company, you may have been on the other side of these kinds of meetings, accompanying your sales people on a prospect call and playing the role of “the person who understands how the product actually works.”

If you’re like me, you’ve noticed an irritating trend over the past few years: sales team inflation. Presentations that a couple of years ago would have been made by an account rep and (perhaps) a technical support manager, now seem to also require a couple of product experts, a Chief Evangelist, an EVP for Sales/Marketing, and someone whose only job appears to be to run the projector for the obligatory PowerPoint presentation.

Some of this is understandable. After all, technology products are complicated, and the sales process involves sharing a lot of information between the buyer and would-be seller. While that may be true, you have to wonder about the efficacy of an account rep whose main function is to introduce the client to people who actually know stuff.

You may also be wondering, so why is it my problem if a potential vendor brings a platoon of people? Let me suggest several reasons, some obvious and some not:

  • It costs you money: Whether you admit or not, you have to realize that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. If a prospective vendor brings a slew of staff to every sales call, that expense has to show up in the cost of their product. Take the crew I was eavesdropping on: They brought seven people across the country on an overnight trip. How much do you think that trip cost? Depending on their travel arrangements, I estimate they spent anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000. That cost is going to be covered by someone, either your company or someone else’s.
  • It forces you to retaliate: When you discover that the sales team is bringing a ton of people, your natural tendency is to include a larger number of your own people than you would otherwise have involved.
  • It wastes your time: If a vendor brings a room full of people to your company, you can guarantee that they are going to spend the entire day in your conference room. After all, what’s the incentive for them to get the meeting wrapped up in just a half a day, unless they want to catch a matinee? From their point of view, forcing you to spend the whole day with them validates the investment of sending so many people in the first place.
  • It gives you a false sense of security about the company: Subconsciously, you may think that a large sales team tells you a lot about how the company would support you. In fact, a large sales team doesn’t tell you anything, except how badly they want the sale. In fact, I’d argue that a large team might be a signal of a future support problem. I say this because, in my experience, if a company brings in a huge group for a presentation, the odds are that the 20-something guy running the projector who never says a word will end up being my account rep.

So what can you do?
Fortunately, there are several strategies for reducing vendor sales team inflation. Among them are:

  • Ask how many people they plan on bringing, and challenge them if the group seems too big.
  • Resist the temptation to match their group by bringing in more of your people. Last year, a potential vendor brought five people to a meeting. When I sat down at the conference table, they asked, “Are you inviting in more of your people?” I answered, “I could do that, but I’m the only one who can approve this project. Wouldn’t you rather spend your time talking directly with me?”
  • Set a time limit for the meeting so that it doesn’t take all day. If you leave it in the vendor’s hands, you’ll lose the whole day. I often find that telling a sales team that they only have until 2 P.M., for example, forces them to focus on their presentation, so they cut out the extraneous material. In that sense, less time can really result in a better meeting.

The point to remember is that you’re not doing this for the vendor’s benefit, but your own. Don’t waste your time or that of your peers or subordinates on a bloated meeting with a vendor. By forcing everyone to focus, you’ll not only save time and aggravation, but you’ll probably end up with a more productive meeting.

Bob Artner is vice president for content development at TechRepublic.

In TechRepublic’s new Discussion Center, the focus is on vendor meetings, and how IT managers can make them more efficient, or at least less painful. We’d also like to hear about the worst vendor meeting you’ve ever had to sit through.
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