By day, I’m the Chief Information Officer at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.  Like many of you, I receive dozens of calls per week from various vendors trying to sell their wares.  I’m also a member of a group called Educause, a higher education technology association.  This week, the Educause CIO listserv has been host to a very lively discussion about the relationship between higher education CIOs and technology vendors.  The entire discussion was kicked off due to a vendor introducing himself to the list.

A little background is in order: One thing that I really like about higher education is the generally collegial (no pun intended) nature of the business.  Although many colleges compete with one another for students, we maintain close lines of communication in an effort to best serve our educational missions.  Oftentimes, in the world of higher education IT, a CIO will post a message to the Educause CIO list with a query about a particular problem or with a question for the group.  The purpose is almost always to query those in similar positions; in many cases, the intent is not to open the vendor floodgates.  However, as a vendor-supported organization in many ways, Educause finds itself serving two masters; one the one hand, Educause is a member-driven organization but the association, like many, depends heavily on corporate sponsorship.  As a result, many vendors are members of the CIO list, making truly open communication between colleagues a challenge at times.

Every six months or so, the vendor/customer battle rears its head and some time is spent on the list discussing the merits – and the downsides – to vendor participation on the list.  The Educause lists do have rules associated with them, including no overtly commercial solicitations on the list itself and vendors are not supposed to use the list to make contact with specific colleges based on a message from a particular CIO, unless that CIO specifically indicates in the posting that vendors should feel free to contact her.  At times, however, vendors ignore the list rules and contact people anyway, although they work hard to cover their tracks.  It’s generally obvious, however, where the vendor got the initial information that a particular college just happened to be in the market for their technology.

Over the past few days, the list discussion has moved from the topic of vendor participation on the list to vendor/college relationships and a venting of frustrations from both sides of the negotiating table.  Although I am not allowed to directly quote list contents – again, as per list guidelines – I can provide some insight into the topic from the general comments on the list as well as from my own perspective as a college CIO.

“What is your budget for X?”

One question that I really dislike and that has been a topic of discussion revolves around the topic of price.  From the perspective of the vendor, he probably wants to know if we can afford a solution from the company or if we’ll be subjected to a complete “value add” discussion.  Again, from my perspective, it often seems that some vendors push the value add thinking that something extra will push us to the Sold column.  However, with budgets tight everywhere and particularly tight at small private colleges, there aren’t a whole lot of additional funds around, so staying in budget is critical.  That said, we often don’t know what kind of budget we might be able to get for a project until we know how much something costs.  Nothing irks me more than asking a vendor for a ballpark price range and being blown off.  Even worse is the vendor with whom I’ve shared budgetary information and limits who completely ignores those limits and assumes that the “value add” will make the sale.  Last year, we purchased a new phone system at Westminster.  I did share with one of the vendors our budget limits.  His company spent a few hours with us and then spent a couple of weeks working up the proposal and when it was finished, I asked them to send it to me electronically, but he insisted on coming to campus to present it.  He arrived with five other people and presented me with a proposal that was almost double my budgetary figure and proceeded to tell me about all of the value add in the proposal, which had no value to me.  After that, I realized that it’s simply a waste of my dwindling time not insisting on ballpark price ranges up front and I don’t share budgetary figures with vendors anymore unless it’s a vendor with whom I’ve established a true partnership.  I’ll talk about partnerships later.

Part of the list discussion this week came from a vendor that indicated that he doesn’t like working with customers that ask about price as the first factor; he’d rather than customers ask about features, etc., in order to establish a value proposition and then provide us with pricing.  From my perspective as a single customer in the pool, my decisions are very budget driven.  Whether a vendor likes this fact or not or agrees with it or not, price is a deciding factor.  Obviously, we don’t do stupid things like buy the cheapest stuff possible, but we do keep a sharp eye on price tags.

Many times, I’m simply trying to figure out how much a solution might cost so I can decide how important it is to address.  If a vendor comes back and tells me that something will cost $100,000, I can decide whether or not to pursue that solution.  I generally tell the vendor up front that I’m simply doing research.

“We want to be your partner”

It’s an extremely rare instance when I’ll consider a vendor to be a partner.  Out of dozens of vendors that we work with at Westminster, we have four that I consider true partners.  The reasons:

  • In general, I initiated the sales process by calling them for a specific project. In other words, the partnership did not result from a cold call.
  • In the initial meeting, I was able to get a sense for potential cost so I felt comfortable.
  • There was never a “push” for the sales. In fact, in the case of our phone system, the vendor that we chose, while you could tell they wanted the business, seemed to truly care about our cost sensitivity and decision-making timeframe. The sales experience was actually pleasant and that means a lot.
  • The vendor didn’t walk away after the sale never to return. I’ve seen this in quite a few “partnerships.” In the case of the four vendors we partner with, I still talk with most of them consistently and we work together on a lot of projects.

All that said, we do keep tabs on all vendors by periodically checking pricing with others to make sure things are still going well.

I understand this sales tactic is intended to be a way to start a relationship with us in an effort to gain more and permanent business and that it’s easier for companies to hold on to the customers they have rather than find new ones.

Leave me alone!

Once we’ve decided that we’re not moving ahead with a particular product, nothing is more frustrating than continually getting calls from the vendors practically begging for another opportunity.  We have one vendor that still calls me after more than a year.  I decided more than a year ago that we weren’t going to move ahead with their service and told them that.  Within days of conveying this information to the vendor about six different sales reps from the company called me personally to try to change my mind and also contacted as many members of my staff as they could find.  They still call me at least once a month acting like we had never talked before.  They’ve also been rude on a number of occasions and I’ve finally resorted to being rude back to them and simply hanging up the phone when they start their pitch.  Now, I never led this vendor on.  The first time they called, we talked about their product and I ultimately received a quote for their service that we simply couldn’t afford.

Most importantly, when I ask my fellow CIOs for advice and ask vendors not to turn it into a sales pitch, I expect vendors to respect these wishes. After all, if they can’t respect this simple request, why should I expect them to honor any other request down the line?

What do I want from vendors?

Enough whining.  Obviously, IT organizations rely heavily on the sales and services provided by vendors, so establishing and maintaining vendor relationships is a critical part of the CIO’s repertoire.  It’s also obvious that these relationships can’t be started unless either I contact the vendor or they contact me.  Further, sales people have a job to do and that involves, you know, selling stuff.  But, there are ways to go about it that can ease tensions.

  • As I indicated above, simply respect stated wishes. When I post a message to a list, I want advice, not three dozen sales calls that I feel like I have to fend off.
  • Don’t do the round-robin thing. I’m not always at my desk to answer the phone. I don’t like finding out from three other departments on campus that a vendor went to them in an attempt to get to me.
  • Give me a price range of some kind. I don’t need pricing down to the dollar on the first phone call, but when I call a vendor with a query, I’d really like to know whether or not I’m wasting my time if I can’t afford a solution. On the flip side of this, a vendor will say that they don’t want to waste their time trying to sell me something I’ll never be able to buy, so I should have budget figures to them up front. Frankly, the vendor, in my opinion, has the uphill battle here. Their business is sales and all of the triumph and frustration that comes with it.
  • Understand that I don’t owe a vendor anything, including an “opportunity”. I will tell you that I do feel an obligation to those few vendors with whom Westminster has established true partnerships. However, I constantly receive calls from people wanting my business and that indicate that I owe them an opportunity to demonstrate their skills. Once in a while, I might do this, but not generally if their services or products significantly overlap with someone with whom we already do business and with whom we’ve established a level of trust.
  • Stop with the ROI pitch already! If I were to believe every ROI pitch I’ve heard in the past month alone, vendors would be paying me to use their services. I realize that the ROI argument is an attempt to demonstrate value, but it’s really disingenuous to use the ROI argument on a first call when a vendor has no idea what we do. Recently, I had a long distance vendor call me and tell me that they could cut my long distance in half! Crazy, right! Why wouldn’t I jump all over it? Well… there’s one catch. This was a first cold call by a vendor that had no idea that all of our LD traffic runs on SIP trunks and that our total monthly LD bill is $700. If their first question had asked what we do for long distance and how much we spend right now, they would have known that their solution would have increased our costs and may not have sounded foolish.

Sales people have to eat, but there also needs to be an understanding that CIOs receive dozens or hundreds of identical calls every week and we simply can’t set up meetings with everyone.  For vendors that are respectful of my time and have something I actually need – and something I usually seek out rather than the other way around – there’s a good chance that we’ll move forward with something.

Coming back to the original topic – the conversation on the CIO list at Educause has resulted in a lot of honesty from both sides of the aisle.  Vendors have also started airing their frustrations with how clients handle the sales process and maybe, just maybe, when it all falls out, we can come to a better understanding for all involved.