By: Keith Martin, Director of Sprint Federal Programs
Near the end of 2012, I listened intently at an industry breakfast as a highly respected CIO spoke of his Agency’s technology acquisition strategy. The review was impressive, including an extensive evaluation of the technology and a clear demonstration of how the Agency would get the best value for its purchase. The Agency had hired a well-respected purchasing consultant to help develop the RFP, manage the procurement process and evaluate the responses and offers. The presentation was an excellent example of what the Federal CIO had in mind when he launched the Digital America 25 point plan and gave birth to the concept of Commodity IT. However, the Agency’s success left me with a very big question: “Where are the Technology partners involved in this new paradigm?”
Just a few short years ago, most of us in technology sales would have spent months educating our customers on their area of interest and would have been deeply involved in the research and recommendations for developing and procuring solutions. Today, it seems that Agencies need us far less. In their recent best seller “The Challenger Sale,” authors Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson estimate that over 60% of the evaluation process is completed before a customer will speak to a vendor. The fact is, our customer has become much more sophisticated. Through both in-house technical talent development and the hiring of private sector subject matter experts, agencies now have enormous capabilities in evaluating technologies. Long gone are the “what keeps you up at night” conversations between Agencies and vendors which generally started the development cycle. Now after a restless night, our Agency partners start their own research and problem solving without a single thought of engaging an industry partner. Moreover, Agencies then leverage their own expertise to commoditize vast portions of the technology portfolio once considered high touch/solution selling territory!
In the past, as technology evolved at a rapid pace, our collective expertise was sought after and, kept our customers’ doors open at all levels. However, as the industry breakfast illustrated, things have changed and those doors are closed far more often. Solution development has morphed into commodity sale and nobody who considers themselves a solution sales person every wants the dreaded “commodity” word to enter any conversation! That said, there is no need to worry…that is, so long as we are willing to adapt our approach. In “The Challenger Sale,” Dixon and Adamson discuss our role as teachers and the need to tailor our presentations to our customer’s new environment. Most importantly, the teaching our customers seek isn’t regarding the feature set of the new “Wow2000” gadget we just released. Rather, they seek insights on their organizations and on others like them throughout the government and private sector. In order to test the validity of these concepts, I spent the last 2 months reaching out to some of the most influential technology leaders in the government. I asked these CIOs, former CIOs, and ACIOs a few basic questions under the cover of “anonymous feedback.” Here is what I asked:
1) Has the government notion of “commodity IT” changed any of your vendor relationships? For good or bad?
2) What makes you REALLY want to take an hour out of your day to meet with industry?
3) Can you provide a few examples of really valuable insights that an industry partner has provided?
I am thankful to all who provided their thoughts! Below are a few quotes I captured and felt most captured the essence of their feedback:
“Honestly Keith, I guess that I DON’T really want to (meet with commodity IT vendors)! In many cases, I have decade(s) old relationships with these guys but, they usually don’t tell me anything I really need to know. I have smart people who generally know what they need to do (what technology, etc)… What I need to know is know how to get it done. Tell me about user feedback you already received so I don’t have to go through the same pain. Or, tell me what mistakes someone already made and learned from so I can do it right. Working in the government, we usually don’t want to be the first to do something. What we want is to be the Agency that does it best. Bring me those insights.”
“I really don’t feel the need to meet with every vendor who comes along. Instead, I liked to have a small number, who I really trust to tell me what going on. A lot of times, with a deeper relationship, they can tell me more about my organization than my own people. If some vendor is touching dozens of my locations, training my people, or doing trouble shooting work, they can tell me a lot about my organization and, how to make it work better.”
“I guess when you ask the question that way, there isn’t as much reason to meet with the vendors as there used to be. Everyone offers their iPads in the same 2 colors. An Apple is an Apple. I feel like too often, they (industry) are focused on some tiny technical difference that makes their gadget special. What I need to know is how someone is using something. Did their end users actually adopt it? How did they make their security guys happy? Did they pay someone to develop something or, did they figure out how to do something off the shelf? If I know about the use cases and, the lessons many have learned, we can save a ton of people’s time and tax payer money!”
So, to answer the articles core question; “Has Commodity IT killed the value of our relationships?” No, but it seems to have raised the bar significantly. Agency Executives expect us to know their organizations nearly as well or better than they do themselves. They need us to ask more questions about processes, programs, operational challenges, and the broader IT stakeholder community within the agency. More importantly, we need to leverage the breadth of our government partnerships and look for universal learning’s that deliver the best return on investment immediately. The Commodity IT sales person needs to redefine the knowledge they offer and look outward to offer insights into our customer’s organizations and processes rather than inwards to some small perceived differentiation. In closing, I will leave you with one of the quotes that really left an impression on me.
It always makes me laugh when a sales person calls me and says “I would like to spend an hour with you and learn about your organization. I am a consultative sales person blah blah blah. I always tell them the same thing. You take the hour, learn about my organization, then call me and tell me what you can do!”
Keith Martin is the National Director of Sprint’s Federal Programs and is responsible for the company’s Federal sales organization. He leads teams of nationally focused Account Managers who support our Federal Civilian Agencies at their headquarters as well a group of professionals around the country partnered with the entire distributed federal workforce. That team provides a mixture of wireless, wired, and converged solutions to Federal agencies around the world. Prior to his role in Federal Programs, Keith held numerous senior leadership positions in Business Sales and Data Solutions Consulting for Sprint Nextel Corporation. Keith holds Bachelor’s degrees in both Economics and Political Science from St. Marys College of Maryland as well as a Master’s in Business Administration from Loyola’s Sellinger School of business.