Software vendors make critical selling mistakes

Not long ago, Kevin Lam, manager of business performance for Telus Communications in Calgary, had a meeting with a software salesperson who was trying to sell him the latest in a certain vendor's roster of products.

Lam said he immediately recognized that this salesperson was not on Telus's account. "He absolutely knew the technology ... but we thought, 'They must have brought in a specialist, because he knows nothing about who we are or what we do.'"

That's a common problem, Lam said. Software salespeople "might have excellent knowledge about the technology, but they often can't adapt to our business requirements, or don't even seem to bother to care about (them)."

One way this problem manifests itself, he said, is when the salesperson tries to push a certain way of doing things based on available features and functions, ignoring questions from the customer, which has its own clients' demands to consider.

For example, Lam said some of Telus' customers require certain documents to be e-mailed to them in PDF version because they have their own regulatory or audit requirements and don't want a document that can be changed.

"When we say to the vendor, 'Can the software e-mail a PDF version?' the first thing that comes back to us is, 'Why would you want it to do that? Here is a better way ... you can just FTP the document or put it up on a Web page.' They're trying to push something to me ... but that's not what we're looking for."

Lam's experiences correspond with the results of a recent survey by Stratagem Inc., a Herndon, Va.-based technology research and marketing firm. The study found that out of 138 IT executive respondents, more than 67 percent said salespeople generally possess good knowledge of their product, but fewer than 15 percent of sellers were rated as "excellent" in understanding buyers' requirements and needs.

Tristan Goguen, president of Toronto-based ISP Internet Light and Power Inc. (ILAP), said he has seen the results of the survey played out when listening to vendors' sales spiels. "We get the sense that these people are trying to sell software. That's really their key objective, and they don't have enough time to understand what our requirements are."

It wouldn't be that bad if ILAP needed a stand-alone application or an off-the-shelf product. But most of its applications need to be integrated into one whole system, Goguen said.

ILAP now has its own way of dealing with the "huge systemic problem" caused by salespeople not realizing that certain ERP systems can't meet all of its integration requirements. The ISP four years ago started developing its own in-house systems. "We've tried integrating the applications ourselves, and we stopped ... . We think we're better off investing in a home-grown system than to try to plug in modules here and there."

Mike Giovinazzo, president of consulting firm We4c Solutions in Ottawa, helps his clients evaluate software or locate a solution to meet a specific business need. He agrees with the findings of the Stratagem study. "Often the vendor (salesperson) is trained in one product and they know that fairly well. But if you give them a specific business issue, if you tell them 'This is what I am trying to do,' they merely reiterate the features of the product."

The key message for software vendors, Giovinazzo said is "put yourselves in the buyers' shoes -- is the client really going to get value given the way you've presented the product?" He said vendors should also consider how to position themselves against all forms of competition, not just other vendors in the exact same software domain. "It could be a custom development, a package, the status quo" that the customer might be considering as an alternative, he said.

Likewise, Goguen said he would really like to see salespeople spend the time upfront to really understand their client requirements "and be frank about the strengths and weaknesses of (their) products."

Brian Joynt, Toronto-based vice-president and general manager for the Canadian operations of software vendor Information Builders Inc. (IBI), said he agrees with the study's findings. To close the gap, IBI has its sales reps go through mini-MBA course where they learned how to align technology with business value.

"We are constantly focusing on that," Joynt said. "We tell the reps, 'Customers don't buy because they are made to understand but because they feel understood.'"

Jo-Ann Powers, senior manager, applications sales consulting for Oracle Canada in Mississauga, Ont., said Oracle uses a three-pronged strategy for dealing with this problem. First, the vendor has "liaisons who take care of existing customers." The other two facets involve providing references within the customer's industry, and using feedback from customer advisory boards to determine what content should be added to applications.

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