IT Needs To Think Like Sales

You don't need to always be closing, but you should always be challenging.

CIOs don't have sales quotas, but they may want to think more like salespeople. Not that they need to always be closing, a la Blake (Alec Baldwin) in Glengarry Glen Ross. But it may make sense to always be challenging.

That was the premise of a webinar on what IT can learn from sales, hosted by officials at the research and consulting firm Corporate Executive Board>.

"Whether you carry a quota or not, a big part of most jobs is selling," says David Anderson, a "member advisor" on CEB's Sales Leadership Council. "Selling new ideas, new ways of thinking, new approaches. Trying to get other individuals to explore new alternatives, change their behavior, do something we recommend."

CEB says up to 70% of IT organizations have at least one employee who works as what CEB calls a "business liaison." These IT business liaisons identify customer needs, manage demand, pitch new ideas and services and hope to become trusted advisors on the best IT solutions.

[ Senior IT managers also need to do more than just think like salespeople. Read CIOs Must Innovate Or Go Home. ]

Sounds a lot like a salesperson, doesn't it? "We have been able to apply this [sales] idea to IT because it holds true," says Leda Nelson, a member advisor on CEB's CIO Leadership Council.

The question comes down to what kind of salesperson should an IT person be.

CEB surveyed more than 6,000 salespeople, and found the data showed they fit into five profiles:

-- Hard Workers

-- Relationship Builders

-- Challengers

-- Problem Solvers

-- Lone Wolfs

[The research was published as "The Challenger Sale" in 2011.]

CEB says only three of these types will typically be found as an IT business liaison: the Relationship Builder, the Hard Worker and the Challenger. Lone Wolfs aren't going to be made a liaison, and Problem Solvers deal with problems after the fact, a customer support role in IT.

In sales, the data shows the best performers are "Challengers." A Challenger, in CEB lingo, is contrarian, enjoys debating with customers and pushes them to think differently about things. It's counterintuitive to think that debating or pushing signal effective practices for IT, usually a service organization. But "Challenger" does not mean "confronter."

Anderson says Challengers do build relationships. They do it by engaging with their business-side counterparts and "challenging" their thinking. A Challenger is an educator, who teaches the customer something new. In an IT context, they'd give the business insight into how technologies will improve competitive position. They may stand their ground against business requests that they think don't make sense. By offering useful reasons why, they build respect for IT from the business side.

In contrast, Hard Workers aim to please and impress through their sheer effort, and Relationship Builders want to be liked, want to please their customer through meeting the needs they express.

Anderson called this IT's version of filling orders. A Challenger, he said, will "help someone think differently about their problems, their risks and opportunities. People want new insights into business needs."

A Challenger has a four-part model for negotiation:

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-- Acknowledge and defer

-- Deepen and broaden

-- Explore and compare

-- Create plans

Here's how Anderson said it would work for IT: A business executive asks for a certain product or service. The Challenger might say they aren't sure that the product is right for the company. The customer would respond "Hey, trust me, we've been researching this for months and know what we need. You don't understand finance like we do."

The IT Challenger would first acknowledge: "I know you've spent a lot of time researching this and the vendor says there won't be any problems. I'm not disagreeing with you."

Then, defer: "All I'm saying is we need to make sure we set this up the right way, otherwise it's likely to cost us five times as much to fix problems. So with your permission can we just take this up as conversation?"

In that way, Anderson says, the Challenger will be able to take the next step, to deepen and broaden the conversation. That lets them bring up issues that the business side hadn't considered, or broader business needs they didn't know about.

After that, the Challenger would explore and compare, discussing different approaches or products and their potential impact on the business. In this part of the conversation, the Challenger and the business side would work together to establish priorities, get a clear sense of the business side's needs, and discuss any potential issues for IT that might prevent those from being met.

At this point, the IT liaison and the business side will create a plan that will work well for both the company and IT. It may in fact be the initial option asked for by the business side. "But now you're confident that everyone will get benefits they expect," Anderson said.

In sales, the Challenger model far outperforms the more accommodating Relationship and Hard Worker models. Is it time for CIOs to take this challenge?

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