The big issue among business intelligence (BI) vendors is how to sell their BI products and services to corporate customers in our tight economy. Surveys show that IT projects are being eliminated unless they are absolutely necessary. Even when absolutely necessary, the projects are being deferred until just before they are required.

However, we all know that BI projects are recession-proof – NOT! As with other IT projects, the fate of a BI project now depends solely on its business imperative, not its technological brilliance.

Over the past five years, managers of BI projects have had it easy. Executives have been driven to support BI from the raw frustration of fragmented and polluted data about their business. It is like driving a car through freezing rain and snow; you (the executive) will pay anything to keep the windshield clear.

The situation has changed in 2003. Who cares about the windshield when your car is disabled along the roadside? In 2003 more than ever, BI vendors must adopt a true solutions-sell approach, focusing solely on the business imperative for applying their BI technology. Continuing to push feature/function of their products is the recipe for disaster in 2003.

The Chasm Group has a provocative solutions-sell approach, which is called Provocation-Based Selling.1 Geoffrey Moore and associates (the folks who bought you Crossing the Chasm) have created another chasm for you. This chasm is about surviving as a vendor (IT, BI or whatever) over the next three years. If they are only 20-percent correct, we had better listen.

For provocation-based selling, the vendor must do the following:

  • Research the prospective company, and understand its business problem.
  • Secure a meeting with a key line-of-business executive through a personal referral.
  • Listen carefully to their definition of the business problem.
  • If the problem definitions match, pitch the "fix-your-leaking-profit-pipe" story.
  • Provoke the executive into action by a "sense of urgency" to fix the leak as quickly as possible. The solution is to apply your special "duct tape" to fix a specific leak.
  • If the executive bites, ask for an open door to investigate the leak and eventually to apply your special duct tape.

What is right and wrong with this approach?
On a scale of one to 10 (10 being the best), I give the "leaking pipe" analogy as a focus a 10. It implies that there is currently revenue flowing and that part of the profit margin is being wasted every minute of every day. There is a stop-the-pain sense of urgency with the constant dripping of corporate waste. It maps nicely into the value chain paradigm. It has a balanced perspective on revenue increases and expense reductions, which both impact profit margins. It is an ROI argument, but a specific one where tangible payback in real dollars should occur from day one. Additionally, one should be able to measure the actual benefit from fixing the leak.

I give the "duct tape" analogy as a solution a seven. It implies a quick and cheap fix, which resonates in a tight economy. We are not trying to rebuild the profit pipe (and change the way that you do business). It implies a temporary fix that should be redone properly when the company is in good times. However, IT professionals despise duct-tape solutions for good reasons – higher maintenance, doubtful reliability, fragmented architecture, new skills required, etc. Additionally, duct-tape solutions often become a permanent fixture on the enterprise architecture, contributing to a suffocating legacy burden.

I give the "provocative" analogy as a tactic a six. Often, vendors must light a fire under executives for action to occur, because inaction is the preferred (and safer) strategy even in a good economy. Being provocative should elicit an immediate response. Although the response may not be positive, a quick response (GO or NO-GO) is definitely merciful for all concerned. However, being provocative with a line-of-business executive is a risky tactic. The vendor is playing on the executive's home turf, partially blindfolded. The vendor is essentially telling the prospect that their business is messed up. Further, the vendor must perform this act with grace and humility, resulting in credibility for the vendor and a partnering attitude by the prospect. This is similar to persuading a lion to eat from your hand rather than eating your hand!

I give the involvement of marketing in the sales process a seven. Shifting the emphasis from general lead generation to targeted intelligence gathering is good. Marketing must do more than establish credibility within a vertical industry; they must have solid domain expertise into specific profit generators for corporations within that vertical industry. That expertise must then be packaged into templates that can be readily used by the sales force. It is "walking the talk" of that domain by appreciating the core business culture of the past while innovating on the hot business issues of the present. Finding the right marketing person to support the sales force will be difficult. A twenty-year veteran in a vertical may not be the best choice. The person requires an aged maturity toward the issues with a youthful vigor toward the solutions.

I give the attitude change in sales personnel a nine. Salespeople must focus on the business. They only get to talk speeds- and-feeds if it fixes the leak, and they better do it in the proper order. This requires a change in skill set and a heavy reliance on marketing support.

This approach is aimed at BI vendors. What are the implications for corporations who rely on BI technology?

Corporations should also change some attitudes, especially among the IT group. Do provocation-based selling upon yourself. First, identify your worst profit leaks through an open and ongoing dialogue among business and technology persons. Draft a one-page request-for-proposal (RFP) for each of the leaks. Clearly state how each leak is to be measured; and clearly state the preferred architectures and standards for creating solutions. Then, use these RFPs as a filter for IT vendors. This approach will certainly align IT initiatives with corporate goals and force vendors to be accountable to these goals.

1. Lay, Philip. "Is There Any Way of Closing Deals in Today's Corporate Marketplace?" Under the Buzz: Back to Basics in e-Business, Chasm Group, July 2002, Volume 3, Number 7.

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