When dealing with vendors, you’re probably your own worst enemy.
In a recent Peer-to-Peer, I wrote about unscrupulous sales tactics. From the flood of responses it seems many of you have had experiences that make you cry, “Foul!”
Some sales professionals do stretch an ethical point past its reasonable limits. Many get tarred with that brush unfairly. Whenever someone pushes every button available trying to make a sale, the button-owner may feel put-upon.
Nobody subordinates their own best interests to mine when our goals don’t match perfectly. Not my employer, not my wife, not my kids. Maybe our dog, Mrfe (I’ll explain that sometime), an airdale with a nice temperament and the IQ of burnt toast.
But I digress.
Don’t you make the mistake of confusing conflicting goals with a breach of ethics. People in sales don’t have your best interests at heart. That’s not their responsibility. They get paid to make the cash register ring. Helping their customers succeed should be an excellent way to make that happen, but it’s a tactic – a means to an end – not the end itself.
When achieving your goals doesn’t also benefit the vendor – when it’s not a win-win – guess whose fault it is. Hint: it isn’t the salesperson.
That leads us to the First Rule of Vendor Relations: The Responsibility for Creating a Win-Win Situation Belongs to the Customer.
You thought that was the vendor’s responsibility? Maybe from some notion of idealized, non-capitalist ethics. Not in any realistic business sense.
B.F. Skinner described the reality more than a century ago in his theory of behaviorism. Translated to sales it goes like this: sales professionals try a bunch of stuff. When something works, they do it again. When something doesn’t work, they stop doing it and try something different.
Over time, it’s the stuff that works that covers the landscape like behavioral kudzu.
Who’s responsible for deciding what works? You are! If you want salespeople to only sell you what actually helps move your business forward, then you have to buy only from the ones who exhibit that behavior, proudly showing the others the outside of your door.
Like pigeons in Skinner boxes, salespeople do what they’re rewarded for doing, and you get to play Skinner.
In interacting with sales people you have all the advantages. You define what you’re looking for – they have to find out. You define what you’re willing to spend to get it – they have to guess. You create the rules of interaction (and if you’re smart, you’ll enforce them) – they have to persuade you within those rules. Most importantly, you write the check and they want it, probably more than you want their merchandise.
Salespeople have to be polite to you. Your good manners are a matter of choice (and believe me, many customers see little need for exhibiting good manners to salespeople). Salespeople have to return every phone call and run down information as you ask for it. Most prospective customers put salespeople at the end of their return-phone-messages list.
And so on.
When you’re selling, your goal is to sell. When you’re buying, your goal is to obtain maximum value. These goals may conflict. Don’t take it personally. Recognize the situation and turn it to your advantage.
As a business tactic, sellers routinely create the appearance of a win-win situation. The vendor’s goal is to describe its products and services so as to create the perception of value in your mind, and to then deliver the specified products and services.
Do those products and services create real, as opposed to perceived value? That’s up to you.
Your vendor has to make sure its products and services do what they’re supposed to do. You (and your end-users) are responsible for defining clear business goals, attaching a dollar value to achieving them, and making sure the vendor’s products and services will actually change your business for the better.
And, it’s up to you to choose the right vendors and products. We’ll cover that subject next week.

It’s re-run time. This week’s presents the three principles IT managers (and, for that matter, non-IT managers) need most if they’re going to do their jobs well.

It is, by the way, the first “IS Survival Guide” ever published. It appeared in InfoWorld January 8, 1996, and I’m delighted to report that even after twenty years, if you’re going to limit things to just three management principles I can’t come up with a better list.

– Bob

KJR News Line

Welcome to the IS Survival Guide, the column that asks, “How can anyone succeed at such a bizarre job?”

You’re responsible for technology traditional IS executives still wish would just go away. You manage the most eccentric employees in the company. You deal with vendors who constantly use terms like partnership and value-added. And while this all goes on, you end up on five committees to advance the management long-term-direction-of-the-year.

Think of this column as management with an edge.

You won’t find any 7-S Paradigms here. No facile graphs that encapsulate a whole industry into four quadrants. No seductive alternatives to the hard work of being an effective manager. No panaceas.

Here’s what you will get: Suggestions and ideas that come from years of real management and executive experience managing technology; conversations with other managers and executives; discussions and debates with consultants, writers and academics; and just plain reading and thinking.

A lot comes from real-world experience of what works well. A lot more comes from real-world experience of what didn’t work so well.

Let’s get started.

The Three Principles of Management

A lot of management comes down to just three basic principles. Understanding them is easy. Applying them is harder. They are:

  • Customers — paying, external customers — define value.
  • Form follows function.
  • Everyone involved must be aligned to a common purpose.

When things go seriously wrong, you usually find something that violates one or more of these simple propositions.

Future columns will often touch back to these principles. Some will cover them in depth. Here are the Cliff’s Notes.


Customers define value, by exchanging something else they value — money — for your product or service. (A commonly misused term, value-added, is simply the difference between the cost of raw materials and revenue from goods sold.)

Paying customers define value. Internal customers (a nasty oxymoron) do not define value (or quality, which is just one component of value). How can they, when they don’t pay.

The usual definition — anybody whose inbox receives the contents of your outbox — reveals the core fallacy. Customers make buying decisions. And unless your internal customers establish your capital and operating budget, they aren’t the people who make the buying decisions for your products and services.

Always find a way to link your priorities and plans to paying, external customers, or at least to the hot-buttons of your company’s top executives.

Form Follows Function

Well this should be obvious, and it is — when engineers design machines. Designers of organizations fail miserably at it. Compensation plans frequently encourage employee behavior that’s at odds with the organization’s goals. Accounting techniques encourage obstructive bureaucracies and political infighting. When we measure performance at all, we measure what’s easy to measure, not what we care about.
Usually, violations of the FFF principle stem from asking the wrong question. For example, “Should our analysts have an incentive plan?” The right questions: “How do we want our analysts to behave? How do we measure that behavior? How should we reflect its value in our compensation plan?”

Aligning Everyone to a Common Purpose

Well of course, but we have internal customers. Our job is to satisfy them. Somebody else deals with paying customers.

Unless every part of your organization embraces the same externally focused goal, your company’s products and services will lack focus and cohesion. That includes you. Here’s a test: what’s your industry? Information Systems? Or the marketplace your company participates in?

Request for Submissions

I’m collecting examples of ManagementSpeak (ManagementSpeak: “I’m not saying no, but I’m certainly not saying yes.” Translation: “No.”). I’ll publish the winners (and their definitions) in future columns.

Welcome to the IS Survival Guide. I hope you find it valuable.