Our latest blog post on our series on establishing credibility for a new product or company is an interview with an actual technology customer.  I am honored that Todd Inskeep, one of the most respected customer executives in the technology industry, accepted my invitation for the following interview.  I hope our readers find it as meaningful as I have

Dave:  Good Afternoon Todd.  Great to speak with you again.

Todd:  Same here Dave.  Thank you for providing me with an opportunity to share my insight with technology vendors and other readers of your blog.

Dave:  You’re very welcome.

Dave:  Todd, We met when you were a Security Architect at Bank of America and part of an elite customer team in Information Security not to mention you were also one of my most important customers when I was with VeriSign.  Before I begin with our Q&A can you share with our readers a bit more on your background?

Todd:  Sure thing.  We met while I was passing six years in the bank’s Security Team, I’d done some operations around virtual private networks and digital certificates, architecture for several areas, and even leading the security and risk management team for our customer relationship management project. Since then I built out the bank’s identity and authentication architecture, and just finished four years on the bank’s consumer electronic channels team – working on strategies to grow the business, protected customers from fraud, and improve security in online banking.  I’m now working on consulting based on my security, mobile, and online banking experience.

Dave: You are having a very impressive career.  Thanks for filling our readers in on your background.

Dave:  Todd, I would like to ask you a few questions about how you as a senior technology customer views the credibility of vendors with whom you interact.  Does that sound okay by you?

Todd:  Sure.

Dave:  Let’s start with the following scenario; a technology vendor who you do not know decides that you are a key player in the company you are with and they need to meet with you and learn more about your role, responsibilities, projects, etc.

Dave:   What is a credible approach to obtaining a meeting with you and have you experienced this approach often?

Todd:   The best approach is when someone I know introduces me to the company or the principals in the company.  That builds on the credibility of the relationship, and often gains support because they want to talk about my problems and the things I’m working on.  Also, it usually aligns better to my strategic plans, my funding for the year, and things I’m actually interested in.  I actively work with my network so people know what areas I’m interested in, and where my energy is going.  That saves everyone a lot of time.

Dave: Where there any occasions where a less credible approach was taken and it backfired on the vendor?

Todd: Of course, cold calls are always difficult to get through, but there are other less credible approach companies really need to be alert for and prevent from the sales team.  I think vendors may not know, or understand when an approach backfires. When it does, it’s almost impossible to rebuild a trust relationship.  Two things that really impact a budding relationship are the repeat calls and the end around.  Repeat calls are somewhat common, and represent a failure to listen.  If I’ve said I’m not interested, I always try and tell a vendor why…it’s not my area, I don’t know who covers that.  If I’ve said we’re not interested, it means I’ve really thought about your product space, and have either another vendor identified, or funding plans that don’t cover that area this year.  A simple example might be a new authentication tool.   If you’re pushing me on a new tool when I’m a year or even two into the last three year contract I signed, I’m simply not interested.  No matter how good the tool is.  I’ve got time before I need to explore options, and I have something else I need to spend time on.

The end around is a similar situation. I’ve said no, but then I hear a vendor’s pitching to my technology (or business partner) in another part of the organization.  Or they’ve tried to connect higher in the management chain and my boss calls and asks me to meet with them. The product hasn’t changed, and the analysis of product fit hasn’t changed, but now I’ve got to go spend more time with the vendor, and with my management to document or share that analysis all over again.  Take no for an answer sometimes, or call me back nine to twelve months later when something has changed.

Dave:  Great points.

Dave:  Next, in the case where a phone or in person meeting was held with you, what Customer views on vendor credibility can you share with our readers?  Specifically, what have you experienced over the years that A. established and increased vendor credibility?  And B. lacked credibility and made you want to run?

Todd:  Several things that really establish credibility:

  1. The problem definition
  2. The story of how they developed their solution
  3. The management team
  4. Their other customers.
  5. When the Product Demo shows me how the product really solves my problem and fits into my business model and work flow.

These are all things that build great credibility – they show me you understand the space, you’ve though about the solution, and you can make it work.  All of these things get me interested.  It’s also good when you can credibly show me you’ve thought about the competition and differentiation.  Most companies make soliciting a single vendor difficult.  Getting two to three good vendors for a problem solution is best.  And winning those is good for your creditability too.  Solving the wrong problem is a big signal to run. Vendors who can’t really define how they fit in a larger ecosystem.

For example from a pure security industry perspective, the companies that go create their own cryptographic algorithms are an issue. The government publishes well tested algorithms for every possible use. Those are thoroughly scrutinized and vetted. Why would I buy “Fred’s” crypto when there’s already a government algorithm that meets the need? Statistics is another big area where you can lose credibility. Use statistics that matter and mean something. Mark Twain said there “lies, damn lies, and statistics,” make your statistics meaningful and relevant.

Dave: Excellent points.

Dave: Todd, how important would you say the quality of the content on a vendor’s web site and general quality of a visitor’s experience on a technology vendor’s website be in establishing credibility with you?

Todd: Personally, I like a web site that visually tells me what the company is about.  What problem are they solving, and how are they solving it. Sometimes companies try to avoid complication and you end up feel line there’s a “magic happens here” box…that you can never understand.  I find that very frustrating.  A couple years ago we were looking at some fraud detection products.  Every vendor presentation and web site left me thinking they were saying my detection is the best – with nothing I could compare.  Not research, not numbers, just trust me, my detection is the best.  Give me some details, footnotes, references to university research.  Someplace on the web site you should be able to give me some detail.  This is actually something I encounter a lot with smaller companies and startups.  They worry too much about their secret sauce and not sharing the details that build credibility.

Dave:   Todd, how about vendors who established credibility in the first meeting with you and then continued to interact with you while you and your team evaluated their offering, what can you share with us regarding your experiences related to increasing or declining vendor credibility in a buying / selling cycle?

Todd: Stick with my process, and keep shooting straight.  I try very hard to tell you I’ve got a process – preliminary research, requirements building, RFQ, RFP, maybe a pilot or proof-of-concept before a final bid and a contract.  At financial institutions that can be a two year sales cycle…or it can be thirty days if you happen to have the right product at the right time (or more likely if you’ve built a relationship without a hard sales push – so you are top of mind with a solution when a problem becomes critical).  Tell me if you’ve got requirements back, or if you can’t meet requirements.  Don’t wait. Be up front and I may change the requirement, or it may take you out of contention. But we’ll both be happier in the long run.  Make sure your product manager and your sales team are well aligned.  Most problems of declining credibility come from a sales lead (or an engineer!) taking on more than the product can really do.

Dave:   Makes complete sense.

Dave:  Are there any examples you can share where you felt a vendor exemplified high credibility with you or your colleagues?

Todd: I wasn’t planning to name names, but we worked with a computer security company in 2010 that did a great job.  Staring about 2008 they contacted me through a mutual acquaintance and started talking about what they wanted to do, and how they wanted to make money.  So I got an early look at both the technology and the business model.  Then we kept in touch.  Their problem wasn’t high on our radar screen, but we kept catching up.  The product is live, we’ve got our first customer, now a million users.  Here’s how it could work for you.  We had more meetings with the technology team.  Here’s who’s using it.  Then we worked together and actually funded a proof-of-concept and measured results.  Those were great.  And we eventually hammered out an agreement for a multi-year contract.

I talked a couple weeks ago with the CEO of a software security company.  Neat product, but we haven’t been able to find a good use for it.  Nonetheless, they’ve built up great credibility by giving us some code to do prototypes and testing, and continuing to talk about requirements (even unfunded requirements).  So that vendor has seen and learned a ton about the issues his product is facing and has to solve for.  They’ve literally built a better product by working with us even though we were never able to close a sale.

Dave: Interesting.  It sounds like those companies who make a long term investment in building trust and credibility are the ones who win.

Dave:  How about on the flip side?  Any horror stories you feel comfortable sharing?    The names of the vendors can remain anonymous if you like.

Todd:  Well there’s a couple big names that are well known in the industry for low credibility.  They either treat their customers like they are a monopoly and just charge outrageous fees with no negotiation.  Or they change licensing terms and product costs arbitrarily and with little warning. Sometimes they have you over a barrel, you literally can’t change technologies and products; but that’s a very uncomfortable spot for a customer.  And it means buyers treat every situation like your product might be a future barrel.  And besides the hard feelings, sometimes these situations end up with the lawyers which just makes I more uncomfortable and pricey for everyone.  Negotiate openly and you can often avoid these issues.  Another easy tip, manage changes in your sales force carefully.  Large companies don’t like helping your new sales guy learn the org chart and business plan.

Dave:  Indeed.

Dave:  Todd, if you are an early stage technology company calling on an Account like your Alma Mater, Bank of America, can you share any general advice on how to approach the Account?

Todd: This may sound obvious, and it may sound too “now” but if you don’t already have a connection to the target company, use LinkedIn to find both who you want to talk to – who the decision maker is – and to find your path in.  That introduction through an existing trust relationship is huge.  And it pays to take the time to educate (or at least offer) the middleman.  If a company asks me to introduce someone to them, I usually review them first.  I won’t do an introduction unless I think the vendor and product offer real value in their space.  Plus I learn more.

Dave:  Good point. How about if you are a large established vendor, any advice for them?

Todd: Established vendors have a tough time too.  They are selling from their strength, but buyers have already boxed them in…those guys sell this kind of widget, if it’s a thing-a-ma-bob then you buy those from someone else. A new product from a large vendor is almost the same as a new product from a new vendor, do those guys have experience in this new area?  Where did they get it?  I’m looking for the same clues for creditability:  the problem definition, the story of how they developed their solution, the product demo, the management team, and other customers.

Dave:   I couldn’t agree more.

Dave:  Todd, last question.  Are there any final words you would like to share with our readers regarding your view on establishing credibility for a new product or new company?

Todd: Yes. It’s about relationships, problems and proof.  Use your relationships to open the doors, clearly define the problem you solve, and prove that you can deliver.

Dave:  Todd, thank you very much for your time.   I’ve really enjoyed this interview.  You have offered our readers an incredibly valuable perspective.  Enjoy the rest of your summer.

Todd:  You’re welcome Dave.  You too!

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