Russ White and I were recently commiserating about the dearth of engineer-oriented conferences these days. While there are some, most of the conference heads seem to think that they have to target so-called decision-makers.
In IT, what is meant by “decision-makers” is “people with signing authority.” In other words, if you’ve got a budget, then obviously, you make the decisions. If you make the decisions, then a conference can be built around you. Why? Because vendors with marketing budgets to spend will get all excited that you’re going to be at the conference, and throw their money at the conference for the ability to shill for their products. And so the gears of commerce grind.
Vendors and conference leaders, this is wrong-headed for a lot of reasons, but one critical one. So-called “decision makers” don’t act on their own. Instead, the managers with the budgets who sign on the dotted line to buy things base their decisions on what their engineering staff tells them will work.
Wait. Is that right? Or is it more true that decision makers buy whatever their incumbent vendor sales person who takes them out for a nice lunch a few times each year tells them to buy? I’m not a stupid man (arguably). I know that sometimes the business of IT gets done because of a handshake. A subtle bribe. A nice lunch. Box seats at the sportsball stadium. I get it.
Despite that, I can also say that I’ve never had a decision maker make an IT infrastructure investment without me telling him or her that it was the solution needed. In those cases, I was the lead engineer. Or the technical team lead. Or a trusted consultant. I analyzed the business problem. I recommended a solution. I modified as necessary to match budget. That’s what we bought.
There are a couple of things at work here.
I was a trusted resource. I had proven my technical worth to the company I worked for. Therefore, decision makers were reluctant to buy anything without my involvement. Not every engineer has that trust. Fair enough. But in almost every organization, there are technical resources who do indeed play that role.
I was, in effect, the decision maker. I might not have always had a budget or signing authority, but I moved the hand that did the signing.
Interestingly, I sometimes dealt with the same vendors or VARs from company to company. Alternately, I’d run into the same people repeatedly and I and they moved around into different roles. Regional tech is like that. We know each other. We’ve probably been working together for years.
And that brings me to highlight a point Russ made in our chat. Don’t make the sale. Make a relationship. The relationship you make with the engineer will ultimately affect the decision maker you think you’re supposed to be targeting. Not only that, but the engineer of today is the decision maker of tomorrow. If you have the relationship now, you’ll keep the relationship later.
The end game is a human one. Build real relationships with real people, working with them where they are at. Respect them not only for the role they have and the influence they exert, but also for the role they’ll play tomorrow.
If you burn them now by going over their heads or ignoring the value they bring, they’ll never forget it. Engineers have long memories. However, if you leverage their input and speak to them directly, you’ll help them succeed now. They’ll be more likely to trust you in the future. Sure, you might not make the sale today. But perhaps you’ll make it tomorrow.
Relationships are like that. Sometime it takes a while for an investment of time to payoff. But when it does, it’s worthwhile.