Achieve customer's confidence in a service they're not paying for
April 3, 2014 2:51 PM   Subscribe

I work for an IT company that provides certain VIP customers with consultancy services, free of charge for them. My job is basically help them identify new business needs, get first-hand information about their plans and projects, do some consulting work related to IT management methodologies, suggest ways to fix non-optimal business processes and in general, manage the business relationship at the highest level (CIOs and CEOs).

My question is simple: The customer has not asked for this service and it is free of charge for them. How can I engage them and build a trust relationship that produces benefits for both parties? In other words, how can I get their attention to this "Value Added Service" they are receiving for being VIP customers?

As a side note, they know this service is not provided to all companies, but I want to avoid being trapped in the operational part of the service (ensuring everything they have payed for is working as it should) but to help them improve their own business with our help. The typical profile for the consultants that do this is 20+ or more years of working experience, direct contact with the CIO and/or CEO and not doing any sales-related work. (We want the customer to clearly differentiate between the sales personnel and us to become their trusted advisors).

Thanks for your suggestions.
posted by Matrod to Work & Money (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
In all seriousness: Be up-front and clear about how this helps your business. I am inherently suspicious of all "Free" services; hearing something like "We're hoping to help you free up more money so we can get some of it" or "we want to identify new areas that we might be able to sell you on" reassures me, even if it's couched in nicer language than that.

I know you want to differentiate between sales and "trusted advisors," but personally speaking, I have exactly zero trust in someone I don't either A) know firsthand or B) have a professional relationship with, ie, I'm paying them. Helpful free advice? Obviously some kind of ploy. You say it's not? Too bad, I'm never going to believe you, because I just don't believe in free lunches.

Tell me how it benefits you to help me, and I might give you a chance.
posted by Tomorrowful at 2:56 PM on April 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Send them an invoice for that includes your normal rate for the work and a 100% discount.
posted by 4th number at 3:15 PM on April 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sales/marketing guy with significant IT topspin to my role here. I'm probably a lot like your clients. I agree with those that say that the trust hurdle is still there. I think you have to recognize and acknowledge that there is still a cost to a "free" service. If you come in my door, I (or my people) will have to spend time with you for the results to mean anything, for starters. I'd expect a lot of in-house IT managers (like me) tend to think they know what all they need already, thanks, and right or wrong, that attitude forms a barrier.

One of my consultant friends talks about "lowering relationship tension to lower task tension." In plain English, I gotta be hurtin' real bad before I'll let someone I don't know poke around in my network - yes, even if they work for the company that maintains it or built it.

So here's some advice:

- I wouldn't tread too heavily on that "I'm not in sales" schtick. You're there to find business, and if you find it your firm is not going to do it for free. Sure, you have free components - you might find problems that cost nothing to solve (ex. "you should really change your admin password to something other than p@ssword."), but you're more likely to find problems with dollar signs (ex. "your network is slow because you're at 99% of storage capacity.") What you *can* say in fairness are things like (work these deftly into the conversation, not all at once, please):
- my services are reserved for our Elite/Gold/whateveryoucall 'em customers.
- I don't prospect. I only work with existing clients.
- My services are provided as part of your ____ contract.

As an aside, have you noticed NO ONE will admit to being in sales any more? This is why that "I'm not here to sell you..." line isn't waving away tension anymore, if it ever did.

- Play to their ego. "Since you're one of our best customers, I wanted to introduce myself. ACME IT reserves the guys at my level for clients at your level to make sure you're ahead of problems before they happen." Everyone likes to feel they're being let in behind the velvet rope.

- Play to their biggest fears. "Wanted to check in with you because another client of ours averted some big problems when we found out they hadn't backed anything up since 1978. We spotted this during a routine Level I diagnostic that I'd requested our A-7 Computer Expert Kevin to perform."

- Play to their stomach. Take them to lunch. Let them tell you about their network.

- Start with pain they've admitted to; start small. Don't come in talking about top-to-bottom reviews. Start with the 3-5 things most people have problems with, and offer to do one of them. I'm always wondering how taxed my servers are compared with their capacity; if someone from my support company would proactively give me some yardsticks on that, I'd love it. How about age of the workstations all through the office(s)? Time-consuming, grody work, which is why a lot of people have no idea. Offer to survey the equipment and give a report. Then talk about what else you can do. Yeah, I know that tends to start you off kinda "operational," but you have to walk before you can run.

Where are your sales guys in this equation? You may still have trouble getting a lot of time with some people (in-house IT guys like me stay pretty busy putting out fires), but it shouldn't feel like a total cold call.
posted by randomkeystrike at 3:51 PM on April 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Go listen to a few recent episodes of the Command-Control-Power podcast. Seriously.
posted by Wild_Eep at 5:48 PM on April 3, 2014

Hey Matrod, I'm a C-level IT executive, have been in this role for about 12 years now. Before that, I was on the sell side, a principal in a consulting firm. A couple of things in reaction to your question:

#1 I would advise you to assume that any of your potential C-level customers understand exactly what the value proposition is here: free consulting now as a chance for business development later (and the profit margin that pays your salary). To not be up front about that will just make you look like a rookie.

#2 Understand that what you are doing is a pretty common proposition in the industry: every large technology company has some number of experienced consultants paid for in overhead to do exactly this. The point being, that a lot of people want to quiz me about my business problems and you are competing with all of them for my attention.

#3 The most precious commodity I have is time, and it is the one thing that everyone wants from me. I could literally fill all of my days meeting with people who want to give me helpful advice. And to get good advice, I have to invest a lot of up front time explaining the nuances of my problem(s). I'm going to be reluctant to make that investment without some confidence it is going to be worth it. If your company already does a lot of business with mine, that is one metric. Otherwise, you are going to have to be patient and get there incrementally. If you already know a lot about my business/problems (maybe from interacting with other people from your company on the account), that is also a positive.

#4 The chances of you telling me something I don't know in an early meeting are essentially zero. I'm constrained by budget, staff, and competing business priorities. Zeroing in on one of my many problems won't help me if I can't balance it against all of the other things my organization needs to do.

#5 Every once in a while, I will have a genuine emergency that will need an impossible same day response. If I give you a call or send an email and you can successfully help me with the problem, you've just moved way up in my universe of trust - if not, your just one more guy who couldn't come through in a pinch.

#6 I'm seeing a lot of advice upstream in the thread that just isn't going to work for most of your clients -- telling me how special I am/my company is or taking me out to lunch or how valuable your time is but you are giving it to me for free. Keep in mind that your customers, who control large budgets, are getting hundreds of email contacts, dozens of phone calls, invitations for breakfast, coffee, lunch, and dinner, and however many in-person meetings they choose to allow, every single day. The one thing all of these execs are expert at is judging sales people on their pitch - every day is "American Idol", only for sales people.

It isn't clear to me whether you are interacting directly with these C-level execs, or managing the people who are interacting with these execs. In either case, one of my favorite books from my consulting days is David Maister's The Trusted Advisor. I would suggest this is worth reading and thinking about as you are trying to build relationships with these execs. If you wanted to ask some more specific questions, memail me. Good luck!
posted by kovacs at 7:35 PM on April 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

kovacs, I agree with what you've said - in my experience a lot of external IT support companies are focused on companies that do not have true C-level IT execs. In my own position I lean more heavily on external vendors for advice; in yours you undoubtedly don't. Inevitably when trying to condense some suggested approaches it ends up looking like ham and cheese, but my point is/was, as with yours - try to build relationships. We all get hammered by people we don't know trying to sell us something; I rarely give those the time of day (in fact, I never do, unless they have something as a calling card - a familiar brand, common association, etc.). I'm probably a more socially-oriented person than you are, but I *do* give existing vendors time to get to know them, not because I'm trying to be a nice guy, but because I've found that in scenario #5, as above, they aren't going to be able to help me unless they know what's going on.

Recently we had a server go out that my miserly bosses wouldn't let me provide any redundancy for, so for about 12 hours straight (5 hours of which was during the business day, the rest stretching into "past our bedtimes" territory), my IT company's "Matrod" was coordinating with me a very tricky process of convincing $idiotic_computer_manufacturer to get a tech out in the evening with a part, followed by getting all the settings reset for our particular configuration so we get work going again in the morning.

That's my "scenario #5" story, and I agree that's what it's about, not going out for coffee. But if I hadn't spent some time with my IT company's "Matrod," he would have been well within the contract at some point to say "good luck, call me after 7 a.m. and we'll start getting the server back on line."

And yes, you could respond "then I would have had him standing in front of my desk at 7:05 a.m. to tell him he's fired," but I don't have that luxury - I work for a mid-sized company in a smaller market.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:44 AM on April 5, 2014

Thanks guys for all your insightful answers. They helped me a lot to clarify the role and to address some issues I'm having at the moment. I'll have a look at "The Trusted Advisor" book.

posted by Matrod at 11:39 AM on April 13, 2014

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