When I was asked to write about my experiences in the IT profession, my second thought (the first being who would care) was how much of what I do on a regular basis isn’t found in college textbooks, the Microsoft Knowledge Base or the endless (and quite useful) How to Blogs. My introspection brought me to the realization that my toughest challenges revolved around dealing with non-technical professionals. Of all the non-techie types you will encounter, two stand out in my mind as the people you will need to build a good relationship with for you to succeed. I know the lack of the “R” word is often the punch line of jokes about IT people. It is often the case that we “Techies” have a better relationship with our machines than actual human beings. Scarred from events ranging from unplugged cords through users not knowing login/passwords to individual’s with bizarre troubles best described as PEBKAC, we shudder at the thought of talking to anyone, let alone the expert talker, The Salesmen. In our defense we typically begin our careers after a grueling tech laden college or tech school regiment most people wouldn’t understand or would burst like a piñata if they were subjected to it, by being placed in isolation chambers in the bowels of buildings surrounded by like minded individuals. Regardless of your background, strengths or personality the goal of running an entire enterprise is probably on your “To Do” list. If you are lucky enough to get to admin a medium sized or better enterprise the first day you sit in that chair can be frightening.
Fifteen minutes into your first day, you will probably have spoken to more people than you did in your first year in this profession. Thirty minutes in, you will have figured out the secret of IT. To save you from your own Sixth Sense moment, I will tell you the secret: Accountants run IT. You will begin to become familiar with Quarterly Expenses, Semi Annual Expenses, Annual Budgets, Multi-year Budgets, and the dreaded 5 Year Plan. Accountants want only two things, the first being no surprises, and the second is to squeeze every ounce of service or product out of every dollar in your budget. All of this interaction with bean counters will lead to an inevitable conclusion. Your mission (should you choose to accept it) will be to examine every service provider contract for price point and termination date, determine if you are actually getting the services agreed upon, and if anyone else can provide equivalent service for a lower price. This mission will expose you to the wild vicious animal known as The Salesman.
Your first contact will probably not be with the beast itself, but with their pesky agent known as The Scheduler. This creature has the daunting task of cold calling decision makers and influencers to introduce the product or service and to arrange a face to face meeting with the sales representative. You can try avoiding them with voice-mail or hiding under the desk, but they will call you relentlessly until you speak to them directly. I have found that The Scheduler and The Salesmen respond well to a direct appeal to the reality of your interest in the thing they are selling. Let’s face it: like you, their time is limited, so lines like “I want to be respectful your time” can often relay your disinterest without poisoning any potential relationship. You never know what your potential needs may be, so resist the urge to scream “NEVER CALL ME AGAIN” and slam the phone back on its receiver. Although there will be a few that will end this way, it will never be on the first call.
Once in a while The Scheduler will call you when you actually are actively looking for a product or service. Often, the first interaction they push is a Webinar. This can be a great introduction to a product, but keep this in mind: this is a demonstration that is scripted to be a perfect display of functionality. A vendor wouldn’t record a pre-sales introduction that contained any glitches in it, so take what you see with a grain of salt. If you like what you saw in the Webinar, arrange a face to face meeting if possible. I strongly recommend when dealing with Copier/Printer Salesmen you use someone local. For LAN & WAN hardware this will be next to impossible.
After you arrange this meeting, do your homework. Every product has faults and detractors, find out what the users are complaining about. If this item is going to have a service plan, such as a copier, ask if the company uses an incentive based service program. Basically, a service Tech gets a bonus for every month that a service call isn’t made. Machines will be set to notify Techs of click readings, service thresholds, and they will do preventive maintenance to make sure your machines keep working. I would also do some research about the industry The Salesman works in. Knowing the challenges and rising technology in their industry will help you identify a person committed to their industry. Now you are ready to face The Beast.
The meeting will feel very similar to entering a used car lot, or at least you may feel like it. After the pleasantries and a basic introduction about the product or service, you should seize control of the conversation with the research that you wisely spent 30 minutes on. One of my favorite things to do is to ask a technical question that I already know the answer to. This accomplishes two things: it identifies less experienced people, and (if you’re lucky) it will gauge the level of honesty that you can expect. What The Salesmen never know, and the Techs always know, is that the complexity and broad scope of technology makes it impossible for anyone to know everything. This is where that Engineering Ethics course you were forced to take in college actually comes in handy. Engineers are trained like Scientists and certainty is a big deal. We learn very early to not give answers you are unsure of, and that there is nothing wrong with saying that you don’t know the answer, followed by “this is how I will find the answer.” If you ask The Salesman this question and the wrong answer comes out, especially a long winded pseudo technical one, you will have a pretty good idea you’re talking to someone who will say anything to win your business. The best answer you will ever get is “I don’t know but I will find out.” If this is followed up later with a phone call to provide you with the answer, you hit the jackpot. The person who passes this test gets to move on to the next step.
If it is a local company, you should take a tour of their location, including service departments. For non-local companies, I like to arrange a site visit to a company near me that uses the product or service. A product or service worth your business should have no problem arranging a current client to show you the product in a live environment. A side note to this type of visit is that once you are their client, they may ask you to show a potential client the product or ask if a potential client could call you. If you are happy with the product or service and are comfortable with the salesmen then a few of these are a nice payback for hoops he jumps through to win your business.
The last thing I want to point out is a personal preference, but something that I think is worth mentioning. Often The Salesman has a thing that is foreign to IT people called an expense account. Depending on the size of the potential account, he will try to use his expense account to win your influence. My rule is that I never engage in these activities with a Salesman that isn’t a current provider of a good or service. I may go to lunch or a ballgame with a salesmen I plan to renew a contract with but never with someone trying to win my business. Even the illusion that your objectivity is for sale can make the underlying goal of finding better products or services for a lower price difficult to complete.
I hope you found something in this that can help your career and I appreciate you taking the time to read this.