Vendor sales meetings, and why we’re to blame for being so awful


This post was originally meant to be a complete slam job based on a vendor meeting I had a few days ago.  The more I thought about it, however, the more my viewpoint changed.  I’ll start with the day of the meeting –  I knew beforehand *exactly* how it would go, and left the meeting feeling *exactly* how I thought I would feel. 

Without knowing anything about you, your company, or your situation, I think I can describe to within 90% accuracy how these sales calls go.  This is with a vendor (think IT, Telecom, etc) that has an existing relationship with your firm.

On your side, there’s you (the go to person), a frustrated admin, and a frustrated IT person there to reinforce you’re not an crazy loon, and to throw in some acronyms when needed.

On their side, it’s a small army.  There’ll be someone with a VP in their title who you’ve never seen or heard of before, who makes it pretty clear you’re lucky to be in the same room as them.  There’s your “account manager”, who you last saw exactly a year to the day ago.  There’s his inside sales rep, the person you probably have an iota of respect for, looking beleaguered.  Then there’s the hot twenty-something female.  Why she’s there, no one can really explain, but she’s there nonetheless.

It starts with the round of introductions and sliding business cards, gratuitous offers of bottled water.  No one can remember anyone’s name since its been so long, so you arrange the cards in order of the seating pattern.  The account rep defers to the VP, who pushes “play” on his pre-recorded speech regarding how important you are as a client, and how the team enjoys working with you all, and how we’re all looking to strengthening the partnership going forward.

Remember this word, “partner”.  It’s going to be used ALOT.

Account rep takes over again, cites this meeting as part of their commitment to excellent service, and asks how we can make a good situation better.  By this point your admin and IT guy are foaming at the bit, and you let loose the dogs of war.

We can’t do “X”, she says.  It takes forever to do “Y”, he says.  And you say, God forbid we try and do X and Y in the same week.

There’s a furious scribbling of note-taking, even by the hot blonde for some unknown reason. “You’re right,” says the account manager, “we’ve definitely fallen down on this.  But I think we can correct things.”  This is accompanied by a stare at the inside sales rep, who is shifting uncomfortably.

At this point, there’s a couple of generic suggestions for improvement, a couple of “mea culpas”, a couple of “we know it’s an issue, we’re working to improve it”, and a ton of “next time you run into that, I want you to call me directly”.  The VP wakes up, says “yes, yes, you can even call me directly”.  Every one of your complaints will be addressed.  We’ll work through everything, whatever it takes.

With the speed of light, the subject closes and moves on to why they’re really there.  “So tell me about your infrastructure”, they say.  “Have you heard of the CLOUD?” they’ll ask.  They sell you ink toner, but they’ll ask if you’re hosting Exchange.  They’re in predator mode now, circling the field for any signs of revenue mice.  “Ink toner guys, do you do RFID?”  “Sure!” says the sales rep.  “We know BKDI backwards and forwards.”  More scribbling.  “Let me look into the people who handle that and I’ll get back to you”.

You make the obvious motion of stacking the business cards, and putting together all the paper in front of you, the universal sign for the meeting being over.  Action items are recapped, hands are shaken, and out they go.  You look at your team, and you see your reflection – resignment.  Nothing is going to change.  Incremental, marginal improvement is the best you can hope for.  And if you switch vendors, it won’t be any better – it might even be worse.  Thank God there’s a bottle of aspirin at your desk.

When I experienced this for literally the thousandth time in my life, I wanted to rail at the vendors.  Don’t you know what you’re doing?  I wanted to scream.  The number one cause of conflict in client-customer relations is mismatched expectations.  Set the bar low, and jump over it.  Don’t promise the moon and give me Barstow (sorry Barstow).

But my anger is misplaced.  There is no clearer example of Corporate Darwinism in action than in Sales.  If you hit your sales numbers, you get paid.  If you don’t, you get fired.  It is the simplest of equations, and the most ruthless of any corporate position.

And this is the formula, this is the methodology, that these survivors of the evolutionary process are coming to you with.  This is the product of years of refinement.  That approach – that meeting – is what works.  It creates sales.  It manages customers.

We, the clients, are to blame for that.  There’s too many of us (myself included) that participate in the Great Dance with a wink and a nod because that’s just the way it has been.  It isn’t the vendors fault – they’re only doing what works, to keep them in business.  But we’re either falling for the glad-handing and mismatched expectations, or we’ve grown so jaded that it just doesn’t seem to matter anymore.

It’s not right.  I don’t know that I have the answer.  When I find myself on the vendor side of the table, when I’m not representing a client but rather trying to acquire one – I know the surest way to fail is to overpromise and underdeliver.  You have to have strong communication channels at all times during the relationship, not just once a year at the big sit-down.  And you have to be honest about what you can and cannot do.  If they ask if you can do something, and you’re not familiar with it, just say so.  You can still ask for that business, perhaps at a discounted rate, but they have to be told the truth.

And maybe that’s what’s missing.  The idea that a truth is a truth is a truth, rather than “our truth and their truth”, or “mostly truth”.  I don’t know.  But I hope things change.