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Selling cloud products? Inform, don’t baffle

Typical salesperson at an IT reseller anywhere in the world: “Thanks for asking about the cloud. It truly is a wonderful thing. Ever since the ARPANET adopted TCP/IP on January 1, 1983, the little ‘network of networks’ that started has grown into a world of interconnectedness, and with the introduction of IPv6 to ensure the shortcomings in address space of IPv4 are overcome, there is really nothing holding back the growth in cloud services now.” The salesperson is just warming up to really launch into a full-blown intricate explanation of the cloud — making sure to quote all manner of minutiae in technical details, especially latency times the salesperson receives at her home after changing service providers and installing that new piece of equipment.

Response from potential client: “Yehhh…” Eyes glaze over from complete lack of understanding while he shuffles off slowly toward the exit in the hope that no one notices he is obviously a complete fool who needs to get out of there as quickly as possible. Maybe this cloud thing isn’t really for him after all.

I am sprinkling this with a dash of hyperbole, and the real-world response by a potential client may not be as dramatic as running from the store in complete confusion. But that is exactly what happens mentally after an opening statement such as this one by a salesperson. All over the world, I hear technical salespeople talking at a level that is way above the understanding of the person they are talking to. It is not as bad as having a memorized script, but many salespeople talk at the same level regardless of whom they are talking to (or more accurately talking at) and regardless of their level of interest and understanding.

In staff training sessions, I often talk about how salespeople need to be chameleons. The most important tool in sales, and particularly in technical sales, is the ability to listen. Listen to the client and adjust your commentary accordingly. Having complete background knowledge of an aspect of the job — such as a full understanding of the cloud — is absolutely essential, but knowing when to roll out and roll back that information is of much greater importance.

When speaking to clients about the cloud, I often refer to the electrical grid. It is well known that Thomas Edison developed the first commercially viable incandescent light bulb. That was way back in 1879. This was a great product but it needed electricity to make it work. Many people were using small coal-fired generators at their place of work to generate electricity to power their lights, but Edison had a better idea. He organized investors to back six jumbo dynamos that were housed at Pearl Street Station in Lower Manhattan and, in 1882, he had 85 customers with a total of 400 light bulbs. He had created a vertically integrated market for his lights.

Today, of course, we don’t really think about where electricity is generated and what happens when we flick a light switch. All we know is that moving a light switch makes a light come on.

And so it should be for clients using the cloud.

I well remember conversations with clients from 20 years ago when they wanted this newfangled thing called email along with the luxury of calendaring and their own domain. Some of our clients were very small businesses with only a few employees, but they made a huge commitment with their email needs. They invested $10,000 for a server running Exchange with appropriate redundancy and backup facilities — and this was when connecting to the Internet was so expensive that the server was set to dial the Internet only once every hour to send and receive email (and only during business hours, of course). This was the equivalent of 1879 in electricity. Hosting your own Exchange Server was akin to having your own electricity generator.

Fast forward to today. I have many clients who pay less than $10 per mailbox per month for Exchange services in the cloud. Clients don’t particularly care about what is sitting on servers somewhere else. They don’t care about the intricacies of the Exchange Server interface and the redundant servers. They just want to know that when they pick up their smartphone, their email comes through and their calendars and contacts are syncing. Just like we don’t care about where the electricity is generated when we turn the light switch on, many cloud services are at the commodity stage. So talk about the multiple layers of the protocol stack if you must. Delve into the structure of the Exchange store repository and the pair of ESE databases that are required to make it work. But don’t be surprised when a client switches off completely and simply wants to know how much it will cost per month to have their mail hosted somewhere. This type of technical information might make you sound cool at parties (at least the type of parties that I like to go to) but it won’t really help you sell more cloud services.

What you really need to focus on is listening to what the client is asking for — and then answer their questions. You might also need to answer a few additional questions that the client isn’t asking but would ask if they knew more. But bamboozling them with the science to show how much you know is never going to win the sales game.

Most important, cloud computing is not a binary decision. It is not a concept that is off today and on tomorrow. Cloud computing is an à la carte menu. There are a huge number of services available in the cloud. The job of the reseller is to inform and educate clients as to the services available, and clients can choose what they require from the menu. Then you need to make sure you have chosen cloud providers that will deliver on the promise.

I look forward to seeing you at a party where I can tell you my joke about a TCP packet that walked into a bar and asked for a beer…