4 questions that get the answers you need from IT vendors

It’s hard to set priorities for buying IT technology when vendors poorly explain what they do, how they do it, and what the concrete benefits are. Asking them these four questions can break the information logjam.

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It’s the time of year when most enterprises are involved in a more-or-less-formal technology review cycle, as a preparatory step for next year’s budgeting. They’ve done this for decades, and it’s interesting to me that in any given year, enterprises share roughly three of their top five priorities. It’s more interesting that over three-quarters of enterprises carry over at least two of their top five priorities for multiple years. Why aren’t they getting addressed? They say their top problem is an “information gap.”

Buyers adopt network technologies that improve their business, not just their network. They have to justify spending, particularly spending on some new technology that someone inside or outside has suggested. That means that they have to understand how it will improve operations, how they’ll deploy it, and what the cost will be. To do this for a new technology, they need information on how that improvement would happen—and they say they’re not getting it.

Let’s look at another expectation. Enterprises don’t plan on how to adopt abstract technology concepts, they plan for product adoption and deployment. Network vendors who offer the products are the usual source of information, which can be delivered through news stories, vendor websites, or sales engagement. Enterprises expect the seller to explain why their product or service is the right idea, and sellers largely agree. It’s just a question of what specific sales process is supposed to provide that critical information.

Technology salespeople, like all salespeople make their money largely on commissions. They call on prospects, pitch their products/services, and hopefully get the order. Their goal is a fast conversion from prospect to customer, and nearly all salespeople will tell you that they dread above all the “educational sell”. That happens when a prospect knows so little about the product/service being sold that they can’t make a decision at all and have to be taught the basics. The salesperson who’s teaching isn’t making commissions, and their company isn’t hitting their revenue goals.

What do the salespeople think should be resolving this problem? Marketing. Most sales organizations work from leads developed by one or more marketing processes, and historically those leads have been created by collateral that also provided prospects the basic education into the value propositions and technologies involved. Those very salespeople tell me that isn’t working well these days.

The marketing people agree, but their view is that the sales organization has to pull more weight. Creating collateral relevant to a given prospect’s business case for a technology and educating them on the basics of that technology is difficult. Websites can become so cluttered that users never find anything on them. My own experience looking at vendor websites bears this out; often I can’t even find the topic I’m trying to research.  The salesperson can lead a prospect down the right path, wading through the options to get to what’s relevant for them.  “Isn’t that what sales is about?” marketing asks.

It would be nice if vendors could get their sales and marketing processes on the same page, but buyers don’t have much control over that. What could you, as an enterprise-network technology buyer, do to close the information gap? The answer is to push an RFP-like process into your first contact with providers of those new technologies you’re considering.

Don’t think of this as a formal RFP; save that for when you have enough information to really buy something. What you need to do is solicit collateral you need from both marketing (meaning visiting the company website) and the sales organization. To direct that process, get answers to four specific questions from both sources:

1. How will this technology improve my business operations?

Be specific, and try to provide some references to others I can contact in my vertical who have applied the technology and seen the improvements.  The goal here is to direct your detailed assessment at the points that you’ll have to defend in order to make a business case, and to help you quantify a benefit set.

2. What are the three key features of your product that will realize those improvements?

Please provide product collateral on each, and explain why these features are key, and what their role is. This is aimed at linking features and functions to specific benefits in terms of business operations, and it lets you prioritize your review of the vendor’s material to avoid a long slog through things that may not matter.

3. How is your product introduced into my network? Is it a layer on top, underneath, a parallel function, a replacement for existing technology?

Costs provided by vendors rarely address the possible write-downs of current gear, or the issues relating to integration and interoperation. The relationship between the new and your existing equipment also defines the areas where vendor finger-pointing excursions are most likely to bite.

4. What will you need from me in order to provide me with a quote on what I’ll need?

The answer is essential in helping you prepare an RFP properly or simply to ask a specific vendor for a quote, but it has other values too. The biggest is that you can assess the answer to this question against those of the prior three. If there are inconsistencies, you’ll need to get them resolved because they could indicate the vendor isn’t preparing responses thoughtfully or may be glossing over details.

It’s best to look at company websites first and fill in how you think the questions are answered there, noting where answers are unsatisfactory or even missing.  Then ask your sales contact to supply the answers, perhaps emphasizing the areas where your own research didn’t turn up what you needed.

What happens if you still can’t answer the questions at the end of this?  Go back to vendors who answered things best and ask for clarifications and expansions where needed and keep drilling down until you have at least one fully satisfactory response. If you can’t get one, it may be that the technology/product under consideration just isn’t ready for prime time. If you do have a good response, use that to create your RFP and take that to the vendors whose responses gave you at least some confidence. Do all that and you can get those stalled technology projects moving.

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