How to match the sales pitch to the CIO

Power and authority differ, so tailor your approach accordingly

The Fuller Brush man was among the first to realize the importance of tailoring the sales pitch to the customer at the door.

The same holds true today for government contractors seeking to win over agency chief information officers and other procurement officials. One size definitely does not fit all, experts say.

Before that first visit to an agency CIO, “you have to understand many factors and do some homework,” said Paul Strasser, chief operating officer at Pragmatics Inc., an information technology solutions provider to government agencies.

“The No. 1 rule is you never visit a government executive, or any executive for that matter, if you’re not fully prepared for that meeting,” he said. “What I always instill is that people [must] make their presentations or sales pitches, whatever it is, very specific to the organization, to their needs, to their issues and the opportunities that exist.”

“As a vendor, it’s not about what value you’re getting,” said Venkatapathi Puvvada, managing partner of Unisys’ Federal Horizontal Services Segment and Federal Systems. It’s about the value the client places on the proposed solution or service.

Wear Your Customers' Shoes

To understand the client, Puvvada said, contractors must put themselves in the client’s shoes. “What is the challenge that they are facing? What are their organizational dynamics?” he asked.

Also, by understanding the constraints under which the agency and its management operate — for example, realizing the current budget can’t handle a full implementation but rather only a pilot program — the contractor can tailor the sales pitch to take those factors into account.

“You have to align your offering or your strategy to that,” Puvvada said. “That is a critical differentiator in whether you engage with them and whether you come across as an adviser or you come across as someone that is antithetical to their situation.”

“You’ve got to invest in understanding the challenges,” Puvvada added. “It’s going to take a lot of time, but it is a conscious choice you have to make.”

Contractors must be relevant to what the agency wants to do operationally rather than simply offering hardware or software, said Mohamed Elrefai, vice president of the enterprise solutions group and marketing at GTSI.

“Much of the messaging that we do has to do with convincing a CIO of an end state that they can achieve either through some change in how they operate or some acquisition that they may do,” Elrefai said.

Match the Solution to the Mission

Contractors need to shift their thinking from simply articulating a value proposition or solution to understanding how that solution will fit within a particular agency environment. “That’s really hard,” Puvvada said.

But once prospective clients know you understand their situation, “they are more likely to talk openly about how they would like to move forward,” he added.

Most CIOs and agency executives will hear many similar sales pitches that describe the expected results. “But the ‘how they get there’ is really the part that often is limited in the messaging,” Elrefai said.

Unlike in the commercial world, the rapid and regular turnover in government leadership — the average political appointee’s tenure is 24 to 36 months — creates unique problems for government contractors, especially sustaining long-term relationships not only with individuals but also with their agencies.

“It’s very hard to establish relationships at the senior level, especially when there is so much change,” Puvvada said. “If you keep a longer-term view of serving the agency, I think your coming up to speed in gaining the confidence of the new political appointee is going to be shorter rather than longer.”

“It’s really about intelligence,” Strasser said. “We have [business development] people and salespeople — there are many sources of information — so you really have to stay on top of it because you have to understand those people as quickly as you can and influence them as quickly as you can.”

He said Pragmatics tries to make contact quickly when new CIOs join agencies with which the company already has business, because “with every change, there are opportunities and threats. You really have to focus on your core business and where your customers are.”

“You have to understand a little bit about the politics and the CIO and what’s on their plate,” he said. “In other words, different agency CIOs have different levels of authority, especially around budgets.”

Move Beyond the CIO

Andy Robinson, senior vice president at ICF International, a company based in Fairfax, Va., that provides technology and consulting services to the government, agreed it is important to build relationships with CIOs but added that a wider circle of contacts is necessary to win contracts.

“I can’t think of a single contract that I manage where I have a single stakeholder,” Robinson said. “Frankly, most CIOs that we deal with stay out of the actual contracting.”

“We always try to never be dependent on a single relationship at a department or agency,” Robinson added. “You need to get multiple relationships going within a department or agency for your contract to become truly valuable to that organization.”

“We’re not there to serve one stakeholder’s needs,” Robinson said. “We have to keep our heads raised high and out of the fray on occasion to understand who are the stakeholders we need to be building relationships with, and making sure that we are serving their needs.”

However, CIOs can be helpful in understanding what the department or agency needs and how it functions, he said. “Is it somebody who’s got policy and sort of cursory oversight? Or is this somebody that owns the entire IT enterprise and all that goes with it?”

Robinson said it’s also important to learn some personal information, including past positions, associations and affiliations they participate in and any mutual contacts.

“How can the connection be made at the personal level versus just a cold call out of the blue? That doesn’t always get you what you want,” Robinson said.

But when it comes to winning a contract, building relationships with senior career employees is also important, experts say.

Establishing ongoing relationships below the CIO level increases a contractor’s ability to more rapidly build ties with a new political appointee because the contractor already is well known, has a proven track record and can expect support from agency employees, Puvvada said.

Moreover, careerists tend to remain on the job long after the political appointees have left office, Robinson said.

About the Author

David Hubler is the former print managing editor for GCN and senior editor for Washington Technology. He is freelance writer living in Annandale, Va.

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