by Lauren Gibbons Paul

CIO Priorities: Birth of a Salesman

Sep 15, 200312 mins

Ask Jay Gardner to list the top skills he uses in his job as CIO of $1.3 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 organization 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 this economic downturn, 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 recognize the importance of sales skills. In our recent “State of the CIO 2003” survey of 539 CIOs (see the April 1 issue at, 35 percent ranked “the ability to influence/salesmanship” as the most pivotal skill in the current business environment. Nearly 80 percent said the ability to communicate effectively is the most important sales skill.

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 ax. 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 percent of respondents have a formal program to sell IT’s value to the business. Yet among the 17 percent, 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 percent and 25 percent. “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 organization. They make him more visible, more of a point of contact,” he says.

If sales experience is missing from your curriculum vitae, you’re probably wondering what skills you need. Here are eight classic skills practiced by successful salesmen that you can use to strengthen ties with your IT customers.

1 Communicate

If you think sales talk is all puffery, think again. The ability to communicate clearly—in your audience’s language—is the number-one selling tool CIOs should use. “If you can’t sell your ideas, you don’t get very far in this job,” says Howard.

“You gotta tell your story,” says Sheleen Quish, global CIO and vice president of corporate marketing at $797 million U.S. Can, a steel and plastic container manufacturer. Quish presents an update to the executive committee monthly. “That’s my time to tell where we are on budget and on projects. I highlight what we’ve done and who’s been significant in getting it done. I use past projects where we’ve been successful to convince them we need to do certain things. I package successes to seed opportunities for continued success.”

For example, Quish recently finished the remarkably smooth implementation of a formal development methodology. With that project wrapped up, she set out to communicate that all involved IT staff and users did a great job. “I created a communication that was sent through the company spelling out this message in a friendly way,” she says. In addition to highlighting the IT organization’s success, the memo subtly helped shift perception about IT and laid the groundwork for future projects.

“You have to be very proactive in your communication,” adds Dale Veno, CIO at Network Associates, who gets 30 minutes on CEO George Samenuk’s calendar every two months religiously, even if things are quiet. “Sometimes I just say hello and review what we’re doing.” (For more on proactive communication, see “Formalize Your Communication,” Page 98.)

2 Manage Expectations

There’s no point having business users buy in to an IT project or vision you can’t execute. Managing expectations, therefore, is crucial. “You really have to sell what you can do, as opposed to what they think they want,” says Quish. “I’m constantly trying to sell and educate and orient people so we can understand the realities and work together.”

Managing expectations really boils down to presenting alternatives so that both sides will end up happy with what they get. For example, in her personal life, Quish wants her daughter home by midnight on the weekends, so she offered her a choice of 10 p.m., 11 p.m. or midnight for her curfew. Her daughter naturally chose midnight, and they’re both satisfied.

In a work example, end users typically want all possible functionality on a project; they want it now, and they don’t want to pay for it. “I have educated the users so they know they can have two out of three of those priorities. They get to choose their priorities based on business reasons. It’s all about trade-offs,” Quish says.

3 Give Samples

Any salesman knows offering a well-chosen freebie in advance of the sale can make all the difference in closing the deal. At Sun, Vass used that principle to his advantage, offering executives early access to Java badges in anticipation of a companywide deployment. Vass says he needs the support of executives for both ongoing and future projects. Those nifty badges contain smart card microchips that give users access to company buildings and single sign-on e-mail and application access. Needless to say, they proved to be a hit and helped pave the way for full-scale deployment.

“We give them some of the latest and greatest technology and get goodwill in return. They begin to see what’s possible. You get them excited about what you’re doing,” says Vass.

4 Sell The Change

Wise cios spend a huge amount of time selling the organization on the cultural and process changes that need to occur in order to realize the benefits of almost any IT project. Take a major initiative such as a CRM rollout. You can’t use the technology to drive the business benefits that you hope to achieve—too many failed projects are testament to that. Instead, you have to use people to drive the change and thus the benefits. You can’t do that unless they are sold on what you’re doing.

It’s a continual juggling act to balance the amount of change a company’s culture can accept with the amount of change necessary, says Vass. “You have to sell the change, bring people along. Even at Sun, people don’t naturally change,” he says.

In recent years, Vass and his staff have been working to convert legions of Sun workers from PCs with hard drives over to thin clients (technology the company sells, not incidentally). Changing to thin clients mean users can access their files anywhere within the company rather than from a fixed location, and it relieves users of the burden of backing up their work or waiting for their machines to boot up.

Those are all positive things, says Vass, but business users still had a hard time accepting their new machines even though they were made by their own company. “Users never really like to change, even if they will get much more work done after the change is made,” he says. To help the change go down better, Vass sells it by demonstrating ROI and overall advantage to the company.

5 Master The Art Of Persuasion

Technology use that effects business results has a way of stepping on toes, so you’ll need your full body armor. Selling successfully involves overcoming political hurdles more than anything else. Vass cites the common task of consolidating redundant applications. “I own System A and you own System B, and they both do the same things. The logical thing would be to consolidate them. But egos were involved in creating both of those systems. It takes a lot of work to overcome that,” he says. “There’s a lot of sales involved.” He overcomes resistance by dispassionately showing that change is necessary for the good of the company.

6 Market The Successes

It’s human nature that people remember the disasters far longer than they do the successes. It’s your job to reverse that. “Every time we have had a win, I have known how to market and publish it,” says U.S. Can’s Quish. “That’s one thing that has contributed to the growth of my career.”

She cautions, however, that your marketing methods must match the prevailing corporate culture. Prior to joining her current company, Quish was CIO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, where she regularly published glossy newsletters to get the word out about successful IT projects and provide updates on the status of current efforts. At U.S. Can, such an expensive and formal approach wouldn’t fly. “That would be considered in bad taste. Here it’s much more of a grassroots thing,” she says. It is still important to recognize both IT and businesspeople who have contributed to the success of a project, but she’s more likely to do that at her regular executive briefings or via a webpage.

7 Deliver The Goods

Salesmen often have the luxury of making the sale, collecting a commission and walking away. Not so, you, the CIO who remains associated with a project well beyond the initial sale. No CIO can have long-lasting credibility without demonstrating to constituents that he believes in what IT is doing and can make it happen. “You have to be able to stick with your direction and show that you can accomplish it,” says Vass. “You have to be more than just hot air. You have to deliver things too.” So, if you’ve spent months preparing the organization for a major CRM initiative, you’d better deliver an actual tool at the end of it. Otherwise, any subsequent ideas will prove to be a hard sell, indeed.

Sell (literally)

This is more applicable to CIOs from technology companies than anyone else, yet even CIOs from nontechnology companies should hit the road for some sales calls. During his 15-year tenure in BMC’s sales department, Gardner gained an intimate understanding of the company’s field operations and products. He uses that knowledge during the sales calls he now makes as a part of his job as CIO. Sun’s Howard goes on 50 to 60 customer briefings every year to demonstrate to the biggest customers how Sun applies its own technology to achieve its business goals.

The payoff for mastering sales skills? A little insulation to buffer the current inhospitable climate. In a year when most companies have halted major new IT initiatives, Veno of Network Associates is planning to roll out a Siebel CRM system to 3,000 users. With a decades-long background in sales and marketing, she is well aware of the pitfalls that await too many of these implementations. She believes her background stands the organization in good stead to avoid these traps. “So many other organizations are having to cut their IT investment dollars right now,” says Veno. “We’re able to spend on our infrastructure. And it’s all focused on what the users need.”