Originally published in Business and Technology Consultant, March 1990.
Much has changed in information technology and in the analyst/consultant world since this article by Efrem Mallach first appeared. It reflected an understanding of the world at that time but, like anything written about high-tech then, does not necessarily apply today.
As a consultant, what do you sell? Knowledge.
Where do you get it? Anywhere you can.
Would you like a willing source of free, accurate, up-to-date knowledge about computer and communications products? You bet!
Believe it or not, there is such a source. In fact, there are several. Yet many consultants are unaware of them, don't use them, or don't use them effectively. If you would like knowledge for the asking, read on!
These sources are the vendors themselves. Every computer or communications firm worth its salt knows how vital consultants are to its future. Debra Rabin, until recently responsible for Mitel's relationships with consultants, has the figures: 60% of Mitel's 100- to 500-line PBX sales, and 76% of those over 500 lines, were influenced by consultants. The numbers are similar on the computer side. If a company wants to survive, let alone grow, it must treat consultants right.
Most firms do this by establishing a program to deal with consultants. They may call it consultant relations, consultant liaison or consultant support. They may give it a catchy name, such as telephone company U.S. West's Consultant Connection. By whatever name, it's there to help you. You'll get maximum mileage out of this free service if you know how to deal with it, what to expect from it, and what not to expect.
WHAT A CONSULTANT RELATIONS PROGRAM IS
Most vendors' consultant relations programs provide a range of services to consultants. Common ones include:
- A newsletter, or other periodic mailings, to keep you up to date on what the firm is doing: new products, marketing strategies, plans.
- A telephone "hot line," to give you specific information when you need it for an engagement. You can often obtain marketing and technical literature via this route.
- Consultant meetings and seminars to keep you informed.
- Often, a loose-leaf reference manual about the firm's products.
- A contact when you need to access a firm's resources for your client: for a visit, a demo, or (heaven forbid!) problem-solving. If you are particularly influential - in your own right, or because of your position with a major firm - these people will keep in touch with you, by phone or with personal visits. The rest of us must initiate contact ourselves. In either case this contact point can be invaluable when you need it.
As Nancy Shotwell of Tandem's Marketing Communications group puts it, these services "provide one-stop shopping for consultants. They don't have to call around the company blindly hoping to get the right person."
With the possible exception of the reference manual, the consultant relations program's services are free. Since vendors can't offer them to every curious high-school student who has their phone number, they may impose qualifications on whom they support. These qualifications are seldom arduous, and never get in the way of a genuine consultant with a legitimate need.
If vendors didn't provide this central service, getting information would be a chancy proposition. Many consultants call local sales offices. Fine - if you have a specific client whom you can identify, have convinced a salesperson that your client is a qualified prospect, don't mind dealing with a different salesperson for each client, like having your requests drop off the priority list when a hot prospect calls, and don't want to be updated on an ongoing basis. In short: dealing with local salespeople, unless one of them is your significant other, is frustrating. A central team, whose only aim is helping you, is usually more accommodating.
Nobody sets up a program such as this out of the goodness of their heart. Charity is nice, but doesn't translate into operating budgets. Vendors expect something for their efforts. In this case their wishes are simple: more sales. If you, the consultant, trust a vendor to deliver quality products which will keep your client happy, you will tend to recommend that vendor. If you don't, you won't. By giving you information, vendors hope you will grow to trust them. By giving you good service, they hope the "halo effect" will make you feel your client will get equally good service.
Tandem's Shotwell describes the reasons simply: "Our sales force can only reach so many prospects. Consultants who are knowledgeable about Tandem can expand that prospect base."
3Com consultant relations program staffer Lorraine Valenti gives many examples of how this works in practice. One example involves market research firm A. C. Nielsen of Chicago. Nielsen engaged Director of Management Consulting Gary Moucha of Office of the Future, Inc. Moucha went through an extensive evaluation working closely with Lorraine and her colleagues. Result: a 3Com installation worth about half a million dollars at the end of 1989, with considerable growth potential in the future. "All of that would not have happened without Lorraine's and her boss's help," stresses Moucha.
Not surprisingly, this self-interest means that vendors will send you information that puts them, and their products, in the best possible light. That doesn't mean the information is wrong. On the contrary: it is scrupulously accurate, often more so than information from other sources. Vendors know that consultants are savvy and see through hype. "We give them facts, no hard sell or fluff, so they can reach their own conclusions" says Valenti. She continues: "If they decide something on their own, they will stand by it."
Most vendors will not send you information that puts down their competition. They know that competitive knock-offs are often inaccurate, get out of date quickly, and leave a bad taste in consultants' mouths even when correct. Besides, when sent to a consultant, mud-slinging usually generates a call to the competitor for a response. This lets the competitor get in the last word. Vendors will present their own strong points and let competitors fend for themselves. You may get a feature comparison chart, but you'll have to do your own comparative evaluations.
WHEN TO CONTACT THE CONSULTANT RELATIONS PROGRAM
There are two times to contact a vendor consultant relations program: before you need them and when you need them.
Contact a firm before a specific need if you think that you, or a client, may be interested in its products at some point in the future. It never hurts to get on their program's mailing list, establish personal contact with its staff, and become familiar with the way it operates. By reading their newsletter, you'll keep up to date on the firm with a minimum of effort. When you have a need, you'll know who to call, you'll ask informed questions, and your request will get priority treatment. 3Com's Valenti says "I want to get to know them and to build a relationship where they trust us and we trust them." For this to happen, lead time before a specific need is vital.
If you haven't contacted a firm in advance, get in touch with it when you need specific information for a client engagement. Explain who you are, what you do, and what you need. Even if they never heard of you until that moment, you should get prompt and courteous results.
HOW TO FIND CONSULTANT RELATIONS PROGRAMS
Call. Most corporate switchboards have lists of departments as well as lists of people. If the switchboard hasn't a clue, ask them for the PR group. PR and CR often work together, so PR will know where to route you.
Alternatively, if you have had contact with the local sales force, ask them. Most consultant relations groups make it a point to keep their sales force aware of the consultant's role in the selling process, and of their own support programs for consultants. Salespeople are delighted to get you out of their hair and into the hands of professionals.
HOW TO DEAL WITH THE CONSULTANT RELATIONS GROUP
A few hints to improve the return on your time investment:
Tell the consultant relations group as much as you can about your client. You should be able to say something about the company (size, industry, approximate location) and the application they have in mind. If you can identify your client, do so; it helps credibility. If you can't, you won't be the first. Explain why you can't, don't play games, and say what you can. The more they know, the better they can tailor what they do to what you need. Remember, these folks don't always have the information you need themselves. They may have to ask others for it. These others, in Product Marketing, R&D, or elsewhere, may need to know more than just "tell me about your widgets."
Do your homework. "I've checked Datapro Reports and couldn't find ..." will go over better than "Can you tell me ...," even if the requests are identical.
Limit your request to what you need. You will get a faster answer to "What are the maximum baud rate and line count of a Model 602?" than to "I need specs for all your digital elbats." If you do need everything, you can get it - but explain why.
Finally, give them all the time you can. Emergencies come up. Consultant support people have dealt with emergencies before and will again. But for each real emergency, they also see ten consultants claiming to have an emergency - usually because they, the consultants, procrastinated.
IF THEY WON'T TELL YOU SOMETHING YOU NEED TO KNOW
This rarely happens. When it does, there are a few things you can do:
- Explain, precisely, why the information is necessary for your client decision and what will happen if you can't get it. By itself this probably won't change things, but it is an important preliminary for the next steps.
- "Can I sign a non-disclosure agreement?" (Your client may have to sign too.) If you sign one, take it seriously. Slip and you won't be trusted again - and not just by this vendor. The consultant relations community is small and close-knit. They talk to each other. Word gets around.
- "Is there anyone else who can authorize me to get this information?" Sometimes there is.
- A popular ploy is "If you can't tell me, I'll have to assume X and Y." If X and Y are much less favorable than the facts, you may get somewhere. Then again, you may not - especially with pros. They know the rules. Their primary loyalty is to their employers, not to you. Even if this scheme gets you an answer, you may be resented for having used it.
One gambit that will not work, by the way, is to call several people at the same consultant relations program, if it's large enough to have more than one staff member. They update each other on who calls whom for what. (Some log contacts in a shared database.) If you strike out with one, that's it. You can still call your cousin in sales or your friend in R&D. That's your business. Just don't try another consultant liaison.
IF THE COMPANY HAS NO CR PROGRAM
Sad to say in this day of niche marketing and infrastructure consciousness, not every computer and communications firm has a formal consultant program. Sometimes you'll call a switchboard, ask for Consultant Relations, and hear "Huh? Was that employee relations or public relations?" I have personally been bounced through six different departments (at a billion-dollar computer firm that ought to know better) before giving up in disgust.
After a good primal scream, there are some things you can do. First, of course, is to get the information you need. Best bets are the PR department, the marketing communications folks, and the local sales office.
Having gotten what you need - at three times the effort it should have taken - don't stop. By then you'll be on first-name terms with at least a few people at the firm. Tell them what you had to go through so your client could buy their product. Ask them to multiply that effort, that frustration, by the number of sales campaigns they mount each year. Ask them if they think frustrated consultants help their cause. Tell them that the profit on one solid sale will pay for a consultant relations program for years. (It will.) Make sure they know that their competitors are wooing consultants for all they're worth. (They are.) If enough of us pound away at this message, it will eventually get through.
AFTER THEY HELP YOU
Most support groups, for consultants or anyone else, labor under great pressure and with little appreciation. A sincere thank-you by phone is always in order. Beyond that, you may be surprised to realize how much good will a brief thank-you note will generate. If the consultant relations group has more than one person, and you dealt with someone other than its head, send the note (or a copy) to the boss. If you recommended their firm and your client placed an order, tell them that too.
If you didn't recommend a firm that helped you, it's not a disaster. Consultant relations people want their firm to win, but they're not on commission and don't feel each loss in their wallets. Says 3Com's Valenti: "If I can help someone I'm going to do it, whether it's a $2 million or a $25 sale." They see more campaigns in a year than a sales rep does, so they can accept the law of averages more readily. They know that a consultant who is in a position to evaluate their firm once will be in the same position again. They'll continue to support you as long as they feel you gave their firm a fair shake, didn't use them just to improve your bargaining position with a preselected supplier, and may recommend them at some point in the future.
A few firms may ask for the reasons behind a negative recommendation so they can improve their products and services. (More should.) If that happens, ten minutes of your time is bread cast upon the waters: it will return manyfold.