Automated sales tools
Marketing collateral, sales tools, and automated reports can save a lot of time in preparing quotations. But will they alienate your customers or win you business?
As computer systems have become more complex and your customers' installed base of hardware and software grows, producing project proposals also has become more difficult and time-consuming. Ten years ago, a new oper-ating system almost certainly required new hardware, and there were still many small businesses buying their first computers.
Today, a customer is making more difficult calculations, weighing the cost of updating to Windows 7 and the potential savings in administrator time and power management, maybe with new PCs and maybe by upgrading what they have, against staying with Vista or XP, or comparing the cost of moving to hosted virtual servers against the control of in-house dedicated ones. How do you show them realistic figures to help them decide what’s the best thing to do?
Vendors from HP and IBM to Dell and Microsoft are attempting to make it easier for you to pitch solutions to customers by offering free automated sales tools as well as more traditional types of marketing collateral. Often, the company behind such tools (including the Microsoft Windows 7 ROI analysis tool at https://roianalyst.alinean.com/msft/AutoLogin.do?d=893919303036409099, the virtualization ROI calculator at https://roianalyst.alinean.com/microsoft/virtualization/ and HP’s ProCurve calculator at http://hpnetworking.com) is Florida-based Alinean (www.alinean.com). Its owner, Tom Pisello, has been in this business since 1993, when he be-gan developing total cost of ownership software for Gartner Group. The idea came, Pisello says, from a report written by Gartner consultant Bill Kirwin in 1989, which was the first to compare the TCO of PCs to IBM mainframes.
“Buyers today, in particular of technology solutions but business-to-business in general, are more conservative than ever since bursting the bubble,” says Pisello. “They’re frugal and economically focused. Before that, it was all about features, innovation, and time to market. Now, it’s about the bottom line impact.” These days, he says, very early in the sales cycle consultants must make the economic case for buyers to consider the solutions they’re proposing; the investment has to make early and obvious financial sense to be considered at all. Alinean’s tools, focus on the three types of comparisons he claims everyone wants: total cost of ownership, return on investment, and, first, assessment.
“Customers are so strapped for resources that they don't even know they have the pain that you’re there to solve,” he says. “You have to walk in almost like a doctor and do a health check and really understand what the customer’s is-sues are.” To that end, Alinean provides health check-style surveys. From the data it collects, it can serve up compar-isons for each new company filling them out: to other similar companies in its sector or location, to best practice, to the average return on investment actually achieved, and so on.
“We think the value-add to reports is very helpful in creating an urgency beyond just the financial number,” Pisello says.
That may be less true in the UK, where the instinctive reaction seems to be scepticism that such tools, sponsored as they are by the vendors, can ever produce truly ?neutral assessments.
“I don’t think they provide a meaningful picture,” says Jim Bisset, managing director of Perthshire-based vendor EQ Consultants, who is very sceptical of the reliability of the information such tools provide. “The place I see these most from is IBM and total cost of ownership figures. I don’t think they’re very convincing as far as the customer goes. It’s very American in nature, and I don’t think the good old Englishman or Scotsman is really convinced.” His customers, he says, don’t recognise return on investment or total cost of ownership savings until these actually happen. “It’s been inbred into us in this country.” Ultimately, he believes, people respect honesty and dislike sales talk – and view the results of such tools as sales talk.
Responding to that Pisello emphasised that “we try to be as independent as possible”. He admits the tools Alinean provides are sponsored by the vendors, but notes that anyone using them is free to change the built-in assumptions, and that it is possible for the tools to recommend against a sale. In the case of the Windows 7 tool, he points out, “For large enterprises that are already modernised and that have large contracts you can get to where the payback is two or three years out, and it doesn’t make fiscal sense.” Is a customer who sees a consultant using such tools inclined to bypass the consultant entirely and pursue the project on their own? “Sometimes they bypass the consultant,” Pisello agrees. “But more often than not the customer wants the consultant’s advice. The tools’ primary audience are sales people and they use them to sit down with the customer and help fill in the metrics and data necessary about the opportunity. They prepare the proposal collaboratively with the customer. That’s the predominant use.” Having a conversation that covers what’s actually happening inside the business is a valuable way to build a relationship with your customer even the ROI figures don’t make the sale for you. If they disagree with the assumptions the tool makes, you’re getting valuable insight into how they want their IT to work for them.
Do it for me
Other types of automated sales tools are more popular. If, for example, you have to burrow manually through hun-dreds of pages of telecom tariffs to produce a quote for a customer, a tool that would automatically produce quotes would be welcome. It’s that middle ground that Chris Comley, managing director of the Oxfordshire-based Internet services company Wizards, wishes more companies would take on. Many vendors and distributors provide marketing collateral that’s meant to be badged with your logo and sent on to the customer, which can be useful or can be just brochureware. “It saves a lot of time,” Comley says, “but I don't always like their approach.”
At the other end of the scale, a number of vendors offer portals leading to useful material such as white papers and comparison studies (Wizards is an authorised vendor for three different anti-virus packages, each with a slightly different set of strengths). Many of these also supply online order forms and pre-built Web pages that he is supposed to integrate into his own site; when a customer signs up, these capture the data and forward it to the software publisher, who then sends out activation keys and pays the retailer’s commission.
The problem for a small retailer or consultancy: the pages do not always integrate easily the way they’re supposed to. “The assumption is that you have people in-house who can do your Web site and tweak it,” says Comley.
The middle ground that Comley really wants, however, that would take the basic data and build a final quote, is largely unoccupied.
“I can see why you’d do it,” says Tony Speakman, regional manager for Northern Europe for the database software FileMaker, which is often used to build automated tools for sales. “As a project in its own right you’d probably never prioritise it well enough to develop something of your own. But the parallel consideration is if it’s a packaged tool how well does it really reflect your business environment?”
Tom Pisello: The ROI Guy
The blog of Alinean's founder and CEO Tom Pisello includes useful trends and statistics about the state of technology investment and ROI: