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Tom Adelstein -- Consultative Selling

Jun 27, 1999, 17:00 (8 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Tom Adelstein)

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[ The opinions expressed by authors on Linux Today are their own. They speak only for themselves and not for Linux Today. ] -- lt ed

By Tom Adelstein

Major information technology consulting firms eat their clients for dinner. They learned long ago how to prepare the table, fire the stove and devour the beast. You may not like this analogy, but if you plan to run with coyotes you'd better learn how to bag their prey.

Writers continue to speak about Linux as an upstart operating system. I find this description confusing. While I'm setting up a support center, it looks nothing like an upstart to me or to the systems engineers on my team.

Today, I sat in the back of the training room watching some serious UNIX veterans configuring Samba and Apache, working on integrating a Linux server into a token ring network with an OS/2 server and setting up multi-homed devices while remotely administering Linux boxes from Windows 95 PCs. I feel right at home in this environment as do the people I'm mentoring.

Looking at a very affordable UNIX-looking system seemed odd to me. In the past, when we deployed UNIX systems, their price points put them out of the reach of everyday users. My systems engineers keep reminding each other that they're working on Linux and that they've got it running on machines at home. I keep hearing the comment rise out of the bustling workspace about how "cool" it is that the best operating system in the world sits right in front of them.

Waking up

In case you haven't really gotten it yet, we have Linux solutions for less money than those clunky DOS, Windows, Mac and OS/2 things we had to put up with for so long. We have robust and powerful UNIX with Sybase, Informix, Oracle, Netscape, X-windows, office suites, graphics tools, DNS, Web servers, FTP, NFS, DHCP, development environments and so on.

Here's the rub: we've been complaining for years about how these incredible tools were so far out of our reach. The cost of UNIX servers, workstations and applications made them the domain of the elite. We had to settle for less. But we do not have to settle for less computing power any more.

What we coveted three years ago works on Intel boxes, safely, reliably and affordably. I'm walking around this room answering questions about how to write an address record in a DNS file and I have to pinch myself. I tell myself how familiar this feels when one of the guys huddled together around a screen turns and says to me, "Did you ever think we'd be sitting in a room getting ready to roll out a UNIX network on PCs?"

Time to share a little

Maybe, I'm still in shock. So much enthusiasm exists amongst Linux users, I just expected everyone would be running around getting ready to learn how to use it. After all, why drive a Chevy when you can get the Porsche for less?

After considerable digging, I have concluded that Linux remains a secret. This product still resides in the domain of the technically savvy. The average computer user hasn't got a clue about Linux or UNIX. The typical Linux guy doesn't go down to the neighborhood tavern and start a fight with some Microsoft bully. So, we don't read about it in the Metropolitan section of the newspaper.

Serious professional consultants can now get out of the house and start selling Linux solutions. We have an opportunity to reach those companies that heretofore couldn't deploy world class solutions. Anyone who thinks that NT and Novell are more than niche players in the computer universe certainly is uninformed.

The police, FBI and Interpol shows little interest in arresting uninformed information technology workers. I can not find any legal statutes describing computer ignorance as a criminal offense. But I do consider it unfortunate that the professional consulting community isn't doing its job of informing decision-makers about Linux.

Consultative Selling

Earlier, I stated that major consulting firms in information technology eat their clients for dinner. I also stated that if you plan to run with coyotes you'd better learn how to bag their prey. Those may seem like strong images to the herbal tea crowd, but if you plan to win business you might want to learn to sell like the multi-nationals.

The following information pertains to how consulting firms approach the selling process. We can learn much from this process and use it to ethically deliver Linux to business.

If you observe the process of consultative selling from a distance, you'll notice seven distinction stages. These stages involve the interactivity between the provider of services and the consumer of those services. The buyer has a desired outcome in mind and the selling party represents that his or her firm can help produce the outcome.

The buyer can not know if the seller can deliver what he or she promised. Part of the seller's job in this model involves establishing trust. The buyer's decision evolves from confidence that the selling party understands the requirements and that they can produce the desired outcome. The buyer makes his or her decision on how he or she feels -- either good or bad about the seller.

The seven stages of the sales cycle include:

1. Establishing Rapport

2. Determining Outcomes

3. Conditional Closing

4. Demonstration of Value

5. Close

6. Documentation

7. Reclose

Before looking at each of these stages in detail, a short overview seems appropriate.

Most people referred to as sales people don't fit the definition. We have a tendency to lump order takers in with sales people. We also consider "spin doctors" in the same class as sales people. Here again, they do not fit the definition. Let's just use a phrase called consultative selling to differentiate a sales professional from the others.

A consultative sales person facilitates the decision making process regarding the promise to deliver goods and services under specified conditions. A consultative sale includes decisions on both sides of the transaction as to whether or not this transaction should take place. Often, the sales professional owns the best vantagepoint to make that determination. If he or she understands the requirements of the buyer, then they must know if they can deliver on time and within the customer's expectations.

Investment bankers from my era (whatever that means) used to say that good deals get better and bad deals get worse. A deal meant the agreement to work together to reach a specified outcome. If the saying doesn't appear clear enough, it means that a sale properly made creates affinity or good will among the parties. A sloppy sale creates disharmony and upsets because the customer or the delivering parties have expectations which are not met.

Failed expectations lie at the root of bad blood between buyers and sellers. A selling party who misrepresents his company's ability to deliver creates chaos in the lives of everyone. As a Linux consultant, ask yourself if you want to create chaos or order in an environment . If you want to create order, you belong in the lineage of the GNU-Linux community. Don't make promises you can't fulfill!

The Seven Stages:

1. Gaining rapport means that you join another person's model of the world. Without going too far into the science of perception, realize that we all relate to the physical world through filters. Some of us think in terms of pictures, some in terms of sounds and all of us in terms of our feelings.

You may often notice two people meeting and asking each other where they went to high school and what companies for whom they worked. People tend to do this until they establish common ground on which to relate. I remember two executives from different companies meeting with me. We discovered that we all once worked for IBM.

From that point on, we had rapport. We had enough internal references in our collective memories to know and trust each other. We came from the same era in computing history to remember glory days and ethics and codes of behavior. We simply trusted each other.

When you find yourself in a situation where you face another person with a need, begin probing to find commonality. For example, I met a consultant who moved to Dallas from Buffalo. I could have said, "Oh, you're from Buffalo. We have a lot in common. Our professional sports teams always beat yours." Imagine the rapport I could have gained by reminding him of sad times in his life. Instead, I mentioned the fact that my wife's family still lived in Buffalo, discussed places I'd been in the area. As we began to feel affinity with each other, we discovered we sat in the same marketing class at the University of Texas at Austin some years back. From then on, we had that common ground.

2. Gaining rapport provides the social element which will allow you to find out what the potential buyer wants to accomplish. Before you start a sales process, get a feel for the company, their stated initiatives and the latest news about their business. You still need to know what the current initiative is that lives in the buyer's mind and his or her wish list. Simply ask the question, "what do you want to accomplish?" Or, "what outcomes do you wish to have occur?" Or, "What expectations do you have?"

Usually, in meeting with a potential client, I start the meeting by asking the person or people in the room what expectations they have just for that meeting. I list those on a whiteboard if they have one or on a legal pad. I also reveal mine. Then I ask everyone if they have time commitments and I set a time to end the meeting. I further make it a point to remind everyone when the end point is near. Keep your time contracts.

3. When you have a list of the client's desired outcomes you must perform a conditional close. At this point in the process, you must determine if you can fulfill the customer's needs. If not, just tell them, you can't do business at this time. If you feel you can provide the services, then you must gain permission to demonstrate your solution. A might ask the question, "If I can show you a way to solve this problem, would you give me an opportunity to do so?"

This might happen right then, or it may require a second meeting where you involve technical specialists. Regardless, be certain you can do an adequate job of showing the customer how you would solve the problem and make sure you have permission.

Our tendency when in a sales situation is to jump into a discussion about how to fix things before we even know what the customer wants, needs or knows. Most sales technique analysts believe jumping into a demonstration of value before analyzing the situation initiates a sales disaster. Resist the tendency to taut your product before you know what the client has in mind in the first place.

Sometimes, we can not help ourselves. What if a potential customer walks up to us at a show and asks, "What do you people know about Linux firewalls?" Suddenly, you're telling him or her 'everything' you know about firewalls and how you saved the American Heart Association from total disaster by using a nitroglycerin firewall, build by Saber Technologies and offered free on the Internet.

If you can remember in the middle of your core dump on firewalls to stop the barrage of information, then stop. Gain your composure and ask the customer, "What do you want to know about Linux firewalls?" This can possibly keep them in the process and you have a higher probability of gaining a customer.

4. Once you know what the client wants and determine that Linux can provide the best solution, you need to make your formal presentation. We feel that Linux provides five strong solutions. These include Web and ISP services; Print, File and Application services; E-commerce solutions; Firewalls and network security; and exceptional Desktop solutions.

If you can solve a potential customer's needs with these solutions, be prepared to prove it. You can chalk talk a presentation with nothing more than a black marker and a white board. You can also use slides or overheads.

For significant business consulting firms put together pursuit teams. These teams can respond to Requests for Proposals or Request for Tenders (Europe). They can also build prototypes and demonstrate a solution for the client. One pursuit in which I participated involved building a working product on three laptops. One laptop served as a firewall, we used one as an extranet application server and the third one we put in front of the client and let them navigate. That presentation took place at the Pentagon.

Remember to make the presentation fit what the client has in mind. At one point though, have something with which to "wow" them. We call this the "wow" factor. "Wow" knocks their socks off.

5. Closing is the natural result of making an offer and getting an acceptance. You made your presentation of value; both you and the client must face those terrifying moments of silence. It's either: Yes, no or I don't know. If he or she says yes, you need to make arrangements to start delivering your solution. If they say no, ask them what they are saying no to: The product, the price or you. This gives you an opportunity to reboot.

If you hear no, the customer may be saying ,"I don't know". Some people say no because they just don't feel just right about the decision. You have to ask yourself if you missed something. In this case, find out what they need to make a decision. Get them what they need to make that decision. Is it an article, a reference or a working demonstration? Whatever it is, get it!

6. The documentation process can be a deal killer. Remember that sharks because of professional courtesy never eat the kind of people who get involved at this point. Even though this is the sixth step, ask for a company's standard legal agreements early in the sales process. You should also have standard agreements ready to hand a client. Finally, ask for a company's standard mutual non-disclosure agreement up-front. You don't want to get into a hassle with the legal department. The best practice dictates early preparation.

7. Before the project kickoff meeting, and after all the paperwork has been signed, do a reclose. Girish Krishnamerthy has a wonderful saying about projects. He says, " During a project, there will always be some technical issues to work out that arise through no one's fault. But, in most projects you encounter obstacles because the company did not do a good job of planning. I don't mind paying for the unexpected things that can't be avoided, but I never pay for problems that arise due to a lack of planning."

Once everything has settled down and people have gotten over the rush to finalize the contract, hold a small meeting with key personnel from both sides. Then, reclose the agreement. The small team from the client side and from the consulting side needs to review the project by going methodically through the events that brought the deal together. During the reclose, everyone should intend to make the project work while being prepared to walk away friends.

The reclose allows both sides of the transaction to anticipate problems, prepare for them and make sure delivery will be on time while meeting customer expectations. Once you finish the reclose, it's time to start delivering.

Final notes

Professional Linux consulting groups can pick up the momentum of the Open Source Software movement. The opportunities for delivering successful Linux solutions are broad and deep. Good companies want the solutions Linux offers. Take time to analyze your market area and use consultative selling to lead you and your public to successful ventures.

Tom Adelstein, CPA, is the CIO/CFO of Bynari, Inc. He's the author of several books and articles on business and technology and has management, consulting and hands-on experience in the Information Technology field.