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Birth of a Salesman

Birth of a Salesman

It's not only about golf and cocktails any more.

To successfully sell IT, CIOs must align projects with customer needs and then prove they delivered value. Better learn these eight essential sales techniques - your budget may be at stake.

Ask Jay Gardner to list the top skills he uses in his job as CIO of $US1.3 billion BMC Software, and he'll cite his ability to influence others, to build relationships, to gain consensus and to motivate people. Technical skills are notably absent from his list.

That's not surprising, considering Gardner spent more than 20 years honing those skills in a variety of sales positions before being named CIO of the software company two years ago. With no technical training or experience, Gardner spent about five minutes feeling nervous about his background before concluding that his sales and marketing skills mattered much more than technical knowledge.

"I already have 400 people in my organisation with great technical skills. The day-to-day skills I find critical to being CIO are the things I used to do every day in my sales jobs - building relationships, asking questions, listening, communicating, persuading," says Gardner.

Bill Vass, on the other hand, would go head to head with anyone on technical knowledge. Vice president of IT at Sun Microsystems, Vass is a die-hard techie. But even he believes sales savvy is more important to his job than technical know-how. "I'm a big technologist, and I really do believe I can solve any technical problem. But you have to be able to sell your program. It's always about people, not technology," says Vass.

For CIOs at IT vendors, salesmanship tends to run in their blood; many have arrived at IT after stints in the sales department. Now more than ever, sales skills are a critical part of the arsenal for other CIOs - indeed the most important part, some argue. In the current climate, being able to sell what you are doing for the business to the business just might shield you from extinction. In the absence of persistent advocacy for how IT is helping meet business goals, it is all too easy for senior management to view the department as just another line item needing to get slashed. And who but the CIO will champion IT to the business?

CIOs recognise the importance of sales skills. In the "State of the CIO 2003" survey of 257 local CIOs, 32 per cent ranked "the ability to influence/salesmanship" as the most pivotal skill in the current business environment. Nearly 80 per cent said the ability to communicate effectively is the most important sales skill (see "Survival Skills", CIO November).

If you don't have a marketing and sales background, you're probably uncomfortable with the whole sales thing. Vass, for example, bridles at the suggestion that he is a salesperson. "I've had people say to me: 'You're a great salesman.' It kind of offends me, actually," says Vass. He's not anxious to be part of any group that includes used-car salesmen.

But that doesn't stop him from using sales skills. These days, talking with external customers is a large part of his job. Vass shares best practices for implementing technology from Sun and other vendors, and he receives the same in kind. "Our customers want to see how we do things. I'm very enthusiastic about what we're doing, and I like to tell people about it," he says. "I also learn a lot from them." He often adopts his customers' best practices for use internally at Sun. Vass conducts presentations alongside Sun senior vice president and CIO Bill Howard at meetings with customers, internal users and senior managers.

Those CIOs who are not fluent at selling and influencing business leaders are particularly vulnerable to the budgetary axe. Howard Rubin, executive vice president of Meta Group, and Patricia Jaramillo, president and CEO of Creative IT Marketing, recently surveyed CIO equivalents from 277 large companies. The survey revealed that only 17 per cent of respondents have a formal program to sell IT's value to the business.

Yet among the 17 per cent, the amount of budget cuts experienced was much less than those at companies that didn't have a formal program in place. Companies without CIOs who actively sold the benefits of IT suffered budget reductions of between 5 per cent and 25 per cent. "The few that had a formal program had much less in the way of cuts," says Rubin.

Nearly three-quarters of those whose budgets were slashed the most said a proactive IT marketing and communication program would have lessened the cuts.

While CIOs need some level of technical proficiency, Rubin says, they should lead with marketing skills. "Marketing skills move a CIO closer to the business organisation. They make him more visible, more of a point of contact," he says.

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