Do’s and Don’ts of Government Sales

People buy from people they trust. It’s a fundamental law of sales — in fact, it’s the first law in e.Republic’s 10 Laws of Government Sales and Marketing. But while the need for trust is obvious, building trust with government buyers takes effort and perseverance.

CIOs speaking at e.Republic’s Beyond the Beltway conference in March offered a series tips for boosting your standing — or at least staying out of trouble — with state and local IT leaders. Keeping in mind these do’s and don’ts can help you move from “vendor” to “trusted partner” and boost your public-sector sales success.

Do: Read my plan

Almost every state and large local government posts detailed IT strategic plans online. Yet all too often, sales reps fail to take advantage of these resources, to the frustration of state and local CIOs.

Phil Bertolini, CIO, Oakland County, Mich. (Photo by David Kidd)

“The worst meetings I have are where someone tells me all the things they can do for me, and then they find out I’m not even going in that direction,” said Phil Bertolini, CIO of Oakland County, Mich. “That happens because they didn’t read my plans to understand what I’m doing.”

It’s also important to understand how your solution integrates with a jurisdiction’s existing technology environment. CIOs will want to know how your solution impacts their current networks and computing infrastructure; whether it runs in the cloud, on-premises or both; and other details, said Center for Digital Government Executive Director Teri Takai, who has served as CIO of the U.S. Department of Defense, as well as the states of California and Michigan.

“A CIO is either buying infrastructure or apps,” she said. “Help me understand your product and where it fits.”

Don’t: Sell around me

CIOs at Beyond the Beltway warned vendors to be careful about pitching solutions directly to business units or departmental IT teams. Bertolini said learning a jurisdiction’s organizational structure will help you understand how to proceed — but it’s almost always a good idea to keep the enterprise CIO apprised of what you’re doing.

“We have a centralized IT operation, so the courts, Sheriff’s Department and others don’t have separate IT,” he explained. “If you go out and sell to the agencies, or if you show my sheriff something, you need to keep me in the loop.”

Sharon Kennedy Vickers, CIO, St. Paul, Minn. (Photo by David Kidd)

Sharon Kennedy Vickers, CIO of St. Paul, Minn., was even more blunt: “Don’t sell around me when you’re talking to the business side.” Opinions were mixed on value of using lobbyists to win state and local business.

Bertolini said the tactic could backfire in his county. “It might work better at the state and federal level, but I’m instantly suspicious when a lobbyist calls one of our elected officials,” he said. “That makes me wonder why the company didn’t engage with me.”

On the other hand, Takai said the right lobbyist can play a valuable role. “I have had some who were a great middle person — where I could express problems to the lobbyist and they could translate that to the company. Some of them can really help you build relationships.”

Do: Step up when things go wrong

There may be no faster way to lose a CIO’s trust than to disappear when a project begins to go south. CIOs at Beyond the Beltway said their most valuable vendor partners work through problems, regardless of who’s at fault.

“There’s no relationship that’s always going to go well,” said Takai. “In many cases you’ll be frustrated because we bought a product or service and it’s my agency’s fault that it’s not working out.”

Instead of assigning blame, agencies and their vendors need to be able to move forward together toward a fix.

You actually get a deeper relationship when you’ve gone through one of these situations,” Takai said. “You need to have an honest relationship, where the vendor side or the government can say, ‘We might not have stepped up.’ Not to point out who’s wrong, but to find a solution.”

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