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CIO Unplugged 5/18/11

May 18, 2011 Ed Marx 7 Comments

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine personally and are not necessarily representative of current or former employers.

This is the third in a short series of posts on The CIO’s Best Friends, BFFs who are critical in ensuring CIO effectiveness. This time we cover the vendor account executive–CIO relationship.

Don’t Fudge the CIO–Account Executive Relationship

I was new in my role as a director. For that matter, I was new to managing a vendor relationship. I was getting by, but only because the vendor account executive (AE) took pity and mentored me in how to manage such a relationship.

I had a responsibility to implement new applications to make our hospital easier to use than the competitor down the street. We had significant success, but it had little to do with my abilities. It was the AE.

I nearly ruined this relationship.

I set out to leave the office, looking forward to a family vacation the next morning. I don’t recall the infraction, but I said something unfair and unkind to the AE. I knew I was wrong and felt awful. I fired off an e-mail apology,  but I wanted to do more. My time was scrunched.

On my desk laid two large, wrapped boxes of fudge from the famous Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. An AE from another company had shipped these to me as a thank you for hosting a site visit for a prospect. I set aside one box for my team and intended to open the other. In my haste to demonstrate remorse, I repurposed that second box, taped my handwritten note to it, and sent to the offended AE. Damage repaired, I left for vacation.

I posted previously on maximizing vendor relationships, which I prefer to call partnerships. Strong relations in this area are instrumental to the success of provider organizations. The AE is the face of the partner and is as critical to the relationship as any product or service provided.

Partners use unique approaches and generally assign one or two AEs to the provider. I prefer one AE. Some partners have multiple AEs representing specific products and services, which I find suboptimal and challenging to manage. Others call their representative an AE, but those are only a salesperson in disguise. Some are assigned exclusively to healthcare, while others are assigned to diverse industries but have some exclusivity to specific accounts.

I’ve experienced many approaches. What trumps any specific structure is the AE themselves. A strong AE can overcome the weakest structure. Conversely, a weak AE can ruin the reputation and business of the most progressive vendor.

That said, here is what I have found works best:

  • Single AE. I can’t handle multiple relationships with multiple partners. But a single AE with a handful of partners is doable. Have you ever bought a car and had to work with the salesperson, and the manager, and the fleet director …
  • Formal structure. See link.
  • Relationship. We don’t have to like each other, but it doesn’t hurt if we do. Clearly you can’t allow a friendship to trump business judgment. I tend to keep a safe distance for the protection of all parties.
  • Transparency. I have yet to meet one AE who did not appreciate brutal honesty. It took some getting used to, but it was a freeing experience. Being transparent allowed for honesty, so I also knew the truth of what a vendor could or could not do. Don’t BS me with jargon — give it to me straight.
  • Identity. Who do you work for? I prefer an AE who makes me feel as if they work for me. Obviously they must remain loyal to their company, but bravo to those who master the identity question.
  • Accountability. Do what you said you’ll do, and be timely.
  • Accessibility. If I need you, be there. I’ll do the same for you.
  • Value-added service. Go the extra mile to help me with my business.
  • Empathy. Give me an AE who cares about what I need, not about what they have on the dock to sell. Understand our world and our challenges. Skip the clichés — relevancy makes a difference.
  • Integrity. I need to work with someone I can trust and solve business problems with.
  • Post-sale support. Service and support after the deal is sealed. True relationships continue long past the initial sale. Maintain communication after the big sale and provide service that allows both parties to learn and continually improve.

I asked my partner AEs for their perspective. Their key success factors proved similar:

  • Alignment. Beginning with the end in mind. Have a clear understanding of the alignment between strategic business initiatives, IT’s role in supporting those initiatives, and being able understand the relative priority of the active projects for the organization as a whole.
  • Questions. If brevity is the soul of wit, the ability to ask good questions is the soul of a successful AE. Questions indicate a desire and willingness to help as well as a tacit admission that he or she doesn’t know all the answers — but they’ll work on your behalf to find others who might.
  • Listening. Contrast this with an AE that does all the talking and simply discusses features and benefits or licensing arrangements. They make little effort to learn your business, and they’ll never learn your business while they’re doing all the talking.
  • Relationships. Work “with” rather than “around” IT leadership to build relationships with the lines of business. Excellent AEs collaboratively develop relationships, think strategically, and have a network of partners and friends who can help you. They include you in those relationships, and conversely you are able to return the favor. Having a long-term view of the relationship helps navigate through the tactical day-to-day issues that may surface.
  • Communications. Talk through expectations at a personal and organizational level. e.g. what do you want from your AE and what do you want from the vendor? Meet regularly to update both organizations on goals and strategy. Ensure accessibility and responsiveness on both sides. Have frank discussions about what’s working and what can be improved. Set agreed-upon and mutually shared goals.
  • Trust. Built over time through the experience of working together.

The benefits to all parties are measurable: More innovative ideas to help the company improve its market position. More revenue generating and clinically effective solutions. More cost savings proposals. More vendor stability for the account, reducing personnel turnover. Success for both organizations and, by association, the AE and CIO.

Following my vacation, I returned to the office and found a note from the AE I had offended. “Ed, thank you for your card. Apology accepted. And thank you for the box of fudge. FYI– next time, you might want to make sure there is no note inside of it (from another partner). I am glad your demo went so well! I had a good laugh, and all is forgiven.”

Embarrassed and humbled, I put my tail between my legs. But I did learn many great lessons through that AE. So remember, if you receive fudge from me …

What are your ideas on what makes for a great AE relationship? I would love to hear from both AE and providers.

Ed Marx is a CIO currently working for a large integrated health system. Ed encourages your interaction through this blog. Add a comment by clicking the link at the bottom of this post. You can also connect with him directly through his profile pages on social networking sites LinkedIn and Facebook and you can follow him via Twitter — user name marxists.

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Currently there are "7 comments" on this Article:

  1. Ed –

    Clearly, you have had much better success finding true “partnerships” than most of us. I have found that they exist, but are few and far between. There is very little win-win mentality out there, despite my best efforts.

    I started out my IT career in the vendor space, then moved on to the consulting space for many years, so I think I have a good picture of what each side wants. Even with that perspective, its a tough go.

  2. This is a very good article. One item to add though. From the AE perspective, CIO’s are notoriously bad at integrating the AE/vendor relationship with the other members of the CIO’s senior management team.

    The importance of doing this is to help the AE understand what it is that the overall organization is trying to achieve. There always seemed to be some underlying concern that the AE would try to go around the CIO or something along that line. The more a vendor understands the environment of her/his customer, the more helpful a vendor can be.

  3. Ed,
    Now that THR has taken on a role as ‘vendor’ (selling EPIC to smaller facilities) you will have a real opportunity to experience this from the vendor side. Hope it works both ways for you.

  4. Hi Ed. I found you on LinkedIn and appreciate you listing your blog. I got stuck reading your views now for the last 25 minutes. Being a career business developer and account exec, I so appreciate today’s post and your honesty about what went down. Too often in all relationships people make mistakes and slip with an offensive response and never even think to apologize much less re-gift fudge. So thank you for being someone whose pride did not stand in the way. I also enjoyed the 5/13 blog on vendor categorization. May I get your “framework” please. I am wondering where you would place risk management/insurance services? I believe them to be strategic given the risk around data breach, patient confidentiality, etc. Your thoughts?

  5. Ed, when I said “stuck” in the prior post,I meant that in a good way as I wanted to keep on reading.

  6. Ed – a really good overview of the “client’s side of the table” and how a vendor can move up to be a strategic alliance partner.

    Would welcome a copy of the generic framework. Thank you in advance.

  7. Ed,
    As always, your posts are great. I will be passing this one along to all my AE friends. I’d appreciate a copy of your genereic framework as offered in your 5/12/10 post. It will be helpful to benchmark your framework with the one my company uses.
    Keep up the good work!

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