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CIO Unplugged 5/22/13

May 22, 2013 Ed Marx 13 Comments

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

Don’t Sell Me, Bro’!

I haven’t stirred blog waters in a while, so let me throw a rock along the surface and see if it skips or splashes.

I admire those who are skilled in the art of persuasion. We need salespeople to bring ideas to help solve business problems. But timing is everything. Solomon waxed it eloquently in ancient days: “There’s an opportune time to do things, a right time for everything on the earth.”

Let me be straight. The right time to sell is never before, during, or after a speaker’s presentation. Yet this happens too often.

I recently finished the keynote for the Texas HIMSS conference. During Q&A, a salesperson launched into an infomercial. I was on my heels a bit and tried to move on. Instead of giving up, he launched into a second infomercial. I just wasted five minutes of precious audience time and subjected everyone to this windbag. I don’t remember a word he said or his company. This type of approach does nothing but spark tension and resistance.

The above incident broke the camel’s back. I am DONE with it. Hence, the motivation for this post and some practical advice on how to put things in their proper place.

Zeitgeist: “Understanding the intellectual and cultural climate of” the speaker presentation. Just for a moment, take off the sale’s hat and empathize with the presenter. Dependent on content, I have worked 10 to 20 hours to put something respectable together. Once it’s assembled, I rehearse at least the same amount.

For the above-mentioned HIMSS presentation, a colleague and I spent 20 hours putting together the content. We spent additional time with Advisory Board and Gartner to review and improve. I stayed up past 2 a.m. the night prior making last-minute adjustments. I spent three  hours before the curtain opened rehearsing again.

As is typical, when I finished speaking, I felt as if I’d completed a big race or mountain summit: exhausted and elated. I’m asking myself how I could’ve done better and I’m beating myself over the lines I missed.

After this presentation, a line formed at the stage to talk. Now don’t get me wrong, I love the interaction when it is an exchange of ideas. Ideas energize me. Interacting with individuals often helps me decompress. But I get indignant when feigned interest is actually a veiled sales pitch.

When you sell me, I completely shut down. I will not remember a word you say. I will toss your business card. One person actually pulled out their iPad to give me a demo of the newest product destined to solve our nation’s woes. Really?

What I love is when attendees come up and we share ideas or perhaps I can answer a couple of questions they had from the presentation. This is like a reward, and I will find energy to connect. I love to help. But don’t sell me, bro’.

To keep this from happening again, I developed some untested recommendations. I am interested in your ideas as well. Please contribute with a comment so we all make better use of this precious time. Both audience and speaker will appreciate these.


  • Control the microphones. When you hand someone a mic, you have lost control. By holding it for them, you can prevent a hijack.
  • Provide boundaries. Let the audience know upfront that questions are welcomed and encouraged, with two caveats: infomercials or pontification are shunned.
  • Assertiveness. If someone violates these rules, protect the speaker and move on to the next question.


  • Be direct. If someone goes into sales mode, actively shut them down and move to the next question or person.
  • Buddy system. Have a buddy with you as you prepare for the talk. If accosted, the buddy steps in.
  • An associate. Appoint an associate to stand with you after the talk. If someone goes into sales mode, they can step in and you move to the next person. My wife is great at this during parties. If she senses a sneak attack, you’d better watch out.

What’s worse than being sold post-presentation? Being accosted before the presentation with a sales pitch. When heading into a presentation, the last thing on my mind is listening to someone drone on about their product or service. My thoughts are focused on exceeding audience and organizer expectations. I’m absorbed with logistics perfection: visuals, lighting, and sound. I’m gaining a sense for the flow and vibe of the room. Not to mention I’m straining to remember all my key points! This is a big deal. It is show time.

Don’t sell me, bro’!


I really appreciate the feedback and the ideas. I love understanding the multitude of perspectives. As I stated at the start of the blog, I have great respect for sales professionals. I have wonderful relationships with many that have helped our organization transform its business and clinical operations enabling superior outcomes.

That said, I still stand fast on this idea –you must respect the presenter and never try and sell them before, during, or after. There is a time for sales and there is a time for presentations. But they are distinct.

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 "13 comments" on this Article:

  1. Suggestion to questioner: clearly think your question through beforehand. If you can’t say the question in less than 30 seconds, it needs to wait until you can!

  2. Interesting editorial Ed and kudos to your preparation skills. I have never written in a comment to HISTalk, but I feel compelled to do so after reading your post.

    2 observations and questions for you please
    AGREED: Having had a successful healthcare IT sales background for a number of years- I 100% agree with you about the sales infomercial by any sales person during any speaker’s presentation.

    CONSIDER THIS HOWEVER- I think you were a bit zealous and generalizing about some areas – as I speak for many professional, “trusted advisor” successful sales professional and by successful- I mean – respectful and informative with “what is in the best interest of the client” in mind.

    People attend HC presentations for many reasons- Clinicians, IT, vendors, etc. In your situation, Ed, if you are speaking on a subject matter that people are curious about- sometimes- with ALL you research and preparing and fine tuning- it MAY be appropriate for a vendor to ask a question for clarification or sharing information about an area that may be new or different in your topic area. You may have researched every piece of information you can- but there is always someone out there in the audience- who may just know something that may add an interesting piece of news- or trend that YOU in all your research may not be aware of. There is a way to bring this up in a non-sales way- and ask questions for clarification.

    Honestly, to classify all sales professionals to not sell you or anyone before, during or after the presentation – is a bit condescending and makes us appear like “used car sales people” (no offense to the “previously owned car sales reps) -but really Ed – think about this scenario:

    You are a sales rep that has a solution or service that may be a new offering, or a marked enhancement that may be considered a “game changer” for someone in that audience. It is not all about you – the speaker – Ed. Yup- sorry. Sometimes we sales reps cannot get that meeting with that C-Suite after many attempts, OR the C-suite person has a prior conceived feeling about the that company, the prior sales rep, or solution. One thing we know Ed- and you say it yourself all the time in your well written blogs- things change all the time in healthcare- and we need to be able to adapt. Thus, this presentation, may be the only time a sales rep can speak to you regarding your topic interest, or can speak to you regarding a peer of yours, etc. You are the SME on this topic- and you said yourself- share something of value. Would this be of value to you: “Ed, I was really intrigued by your reference to “XYZ” – I think I may be able to share something new with you to address this reference. Can I set up a time to do so with you?”

    You may take offense to this- as it seems like a sales pitch. But how many times do companies/sales/vendors send an email and it goes to your admin, or your SPAM, or you disregard because of the reference to your speaking engagement- ‘they are selling me something.”

    So how would you respond to this question? It could be one of those people lined up to ask you questions in the line you refer to- may have something for you to consider, that you were not aware of -nor Gartner is even privy to- it could be that sales person in that line or asking that question PROFESSIONALLY and RESPECTFULLY in the audience- may have something of interest to someone ELSE in the audience- but not you. That’s why people attended your presentation to begin with, right? To learn more about that topic?

    Please pardon me if I seem a bit miffed- but I am – as you came across in your blog today as condescending and “all about me” pounding your chest. And that is not usually your style.

    So instead of telling us how NOT to do it- agreed no infomercials allowed any time- how about a thoughtful question or suggestion to follow up with you- or give the person (sales rep- gasp!) a chance to ask the question or update on a topic- because someone else MAY not be aware of that information and be interested to learn it.

    Signed, “Sell it to me Sis”

  3. Ed I think your point is right it is all about timing. It only feels like you are being sold when the sales person has not gained the credibility to share how they can help you and have provided their solution to others. Really good sales people look for one thing repeatable business that is the foundation of how we reach our goals and help customers. If you fit the ideal customer profile because you are going through the same thing as the last 12 customers I am going to try to help. Okay, that all said I will take a step back and say some sales people just don’t get it- being in sales is not lying, it’s not convincing someone to buy what they don’t need and laughing all the way to the bank, and it is not getting the attention of a CIO at a conference and doing an elevator pitch or some other stupid stuff they read in a sales book or got from a training. It is simply knowing where your product can help and gaining the credibility to share the stories about how you have helped others.

  4. I agree with Sis-the infomercial was out of line, but I often read Ed’s blog and usually find it informative. This time though, I find Ed’s comments to be in line with what I see going on in healthcare IT in general and more acutely, at Texas HIMMS meetings. There are a lot of professional sales people in the healthcare IT world that are passionate about what they sell and more so, how they sell it. I wouldn’t dream of approaching a speaker right after they have finished to “sell” them, but would certainly look for them later in the day or send them an email if the technology I sold could solve a problem they were having.

    As most sales people know though, often times, my email would be deleted before the subject line would be read. How is it then, that healthcare IT leaders learn anything about new and emerging technologies if they develop strategies to avoid speaking to those who attempt to first understand problems and then educate on solutions? It would seem to me that one of the very reasons for the existance of meetings like Texas HIMMS would be for learning and sharing of ideas. I guess the question is; do attendees at these events feel that “sales people” know enough to be beneficial?

    I’ve been to Texas HIMMS, as well as other regional HIMMS meetings over the years. I am a professional sales person and I attend for several reason-to learn, to support those I work with/call on and to represent my company. I am there more to meet people, most sales people know that these regional events are lower key than the national HIMMS event, but I will say, when I have attended the Texas event, I was very disappointed with the lack of booth traffic, even though attendees ate in the exhibit hall. No one cared to get up and walk around and spend any time with the very people and companies that financed the meeting! What people need to understand is this-most professional sales people are there for the reasons I have already mentioned. We want to say hello and just meet you. Walk around to the booths and say hello. Heck you might even learn something new if you do!

    My opinion is that “Don’t Sell Me Bro'” is the attitude of many at this meeting.

  5. Tools are useful: speakers (or their buddy or introducer) can take a flashlight, airhorn (for outdoors big-crowd sports events), or (I saw it once, in a young ecommerce crowd) squirt-gun to halt an audience member who hijacks Q&A. And the speaker can and should YELL to interrupt such a protocol breach, perhaps offering humor (e.g., “The location for sales calls is out in the lobby -after- our session.”) And shaming a wrong-doer is acceptable in some contexts; I once called out a disruptive audience member “You’re stealing everyone else’s time!” Finally, in a panel, by prior agreement, a bright-color, old-school, bell-on-top alarm clock can be physically passed and shared, to collegially ding any panelist who runs too long. Remember “The Gong Show”!

  6. Technology solution:
    Only accept questions/comments electronically via text message, e-mail, or twitter. Moderator (not the speaker) will review each message and will read relevant messages for speaker to respond.

  7. Ed I appreciate your comments about last week’s event. I expected no less than to have a well thought out and impactful presentation and it was my honor to introduce you. When the “windbag” (you were being kind, I would have selected another adjective) dove off into his agenda I literally had to take the microphone away and publicly embarrass the man refusing to give it back. After your presentation which shared so much including your own very personal experience dealing with a family member’s passing to have a self absorbed moron derail what was a great educational event was shameful.

    It is exactly this kind of behavior that polarizes everyone against sales people.

    Healthcare is the most complex sales environment on the planet and if you aren’t taking the time to learn the issues and drive the customers agenda and not yours you will fail. In the DFW HIMSS chapter each year we kick off the year with a CIO Roundtable panel discussion. We all look forward to it and it’s always a great way for vendors and providers alike to learn what is most relevant each year. As a vendor if you pay attention you get the best seat in the house for what the customer’s agenda is each year.

    Two years ago we added a “vendor track” to this event. Prior to the general assembly we take an hour and the CIO’s speak frankly to an audience of just vendors. In this track the CIO’s have a coaching role in order to accomplish two key objectives that being to communicate what their significant projects will be for the year and equally as important – how to engage them and their organizations in a constructive manner. The feedback we have received from countless vendors after these past two events has been outstanding. Education and sharing what works and what doesn’t is what HIMSS is all about. Ed’s article was spot on – as a vendor you can be a windbag and build a personal brand that is the exact opposite of what will lead to sales success or you can take the time every day to get involved and make the customers agenda more important than your own.

    The DFW Chapter will be doing more to help educate our vendor members and keep them current on what the relevant issues are. As an example we started a blog in January of this year at http://www.healthcareTL.com. This is a great tool for vendors to stay current on what is most relevant to the healthcare thought leaders in north Texas. Every week we interview key executives and will continue this process as an ongoing commitment to professional development and “windbag prevention”.

    Ed I appreciate the time you take to support HIMSS and my own view is that we learned two things from last week’s event, you give a heck of a good presentation and how not to sell in healthcare.

  8. As someone who used to be sold to all the time, I can respond to the comments Sales Bro and Sell it to me Sis make from the standpoint of those who are frequently “sold”. The problem really is one of context and timing. When I’m trying to find a solution to a problem, there’s a number of phases that I go through in order to find that solution. Out of all of those phases, there’s only one phase where I actually want to be “sold”; having that happen at any other time during the process is either too early (I don’t have the right questions ready, I don’t fully understand the market, etc.) or too late (we’re already in our RFP or contract phase).

    Trying to catch me during that one phase, though, is not likely to be a good use of your time. Why? Because the first things I do are reach out to my peers to get references on good products, and Google the market like crazy to come up with a list of products that might work. If you’re a disruptive newcomer and your SEO isn’t up-to-speed enough that my google search finds you, then you’re probably not at a point where my organization would feel comfortable using you (some might, but the one I was at would not). It’s also not a good use of my time; I would receive daily phone calls and emails re: products that not only were we not in the market for, we hadn’t been and wouldn’t be for years. Responding thoughtfully to each one of those just wasn’t going to happen.

    With this list I generated in the prior step, I will then contact you. Yes, that’s right, I’ll email, pick up the phone, or otherwise somehow get in touch. The best sales organizations, time and time again, were the ones that responded promptly (usually the same day), and had someone call who actually listened to what I wanted and responded appropriately, rather than giving me some canned sell that ignored what I was seeking. If you ignore what I’m actually asking for, I assume that you don’t have it, and move on.

    Giving sales pitches at conferences are, in essence, stealing time away from everyone that’s there that isn’t in the right phase to hear about it, which is most people. It’s a way to get some free advertising, except it’s done at a time when people can’t avoid it if they have no interest, and it burns up time for other, non-sales, questions to be addressed. Poor form, and an immediate turn-off.

  9. I’ll definitely back Ed on this one. Yes, I have vendors and consultants who are trusted advisors and strategic partners. But the vast majority of the rest are indeed ‘used car salesmen’ who don’t have a strategic or trustworthy bone in their body. You can just look at my junk mail box on any given day or talk to my executive assistant about the out and out lies that people tell to try to get to me. And it’s getting worse every day. Just today alone, I probably unsubscribed to a dozen unsolicited e-mails. I have lots of avenues to keep up on what is going on in the industry, so if I have a need for something, I’ll find you. If not, stop wasting my time with your intrusions.

  10. I cringe when I read about sales people who are more about the sale than the interests of the buyer, and Ed is right on about the appropriate time and place.

    With that said, what is both apparent and missing are two key points: 1) Apparent – there is an unhealthy sense of polarization of providers and vendors…a ‘we versus they’ syndrome if you will, and that isn’t helping anyone. There are way too many challenges in healthcare IT today for that to be an appropriate (or effective) way of doing business for either the vendor or the provider. 2) What’s MIssing – the spirit of collaboration that helps to build on-going solutions providers really do need. When there is collaboration vendors learn what works and what doesn’t and a vendor worth their salt listens intently and develops solutions based on those and anticipated needs. With strong collaboration and yes, trust, vendors and providers aren’t we/they, they are partners.

    HITRUST is a great example of the worst case of perpetuating this we/they thing. They determined that not having vendors at their conference was in the best interest of attendees, effectively saying vendors are leaches just waiting to jump on the good guys. Yet, the topics that are being discussed at the conference are those where both vendors and attendees could and SHOULD be collaborating. But wait, vendors CAN sponsor an evening event; their money is good enough to support the financial needs and I guess they figure vendors can’t do too much damage over cocktails.

    The end point is there is a time and place for everything; rude is rude no matter who it is and it’s time for everyone to realize that the best brains and ideas don’t reside in any one ‘camp’. Collaboration isn’t a buzz-word, it’s a necessity in today’s healthcare IT environment.

  11. I don’t think that Ed is saying that vendors are bad or implying in any way that they (we) have no value – quite the contrary, he was complimentary of the value they add to a conversation. He was really pointing out there is a reason and a season – a time for everything. (I love the reference of Solomon instead of the song….) for approaching a potential client.

    I find some of the comments very confusing – actually some are a little whiney…no wonder they are anonymous. This is in response to the sales persons’ comments – your job as a sales person is to find a way to be of value to the client. We have 7 core values for our sales team (derived from our corporate core values). One that is crucially important is “We are intelligent, wise and constant leaders. Our value to the client is in our ability to solve problems in a constantly evolving market. Our ability to adapt and learn is what adds value to the relationship.”

    If you bring nothing of value to the relationship other than your product – then why would they want to talk to you. You must put their needs before your own need. Sometimes your product ISN’T the right solution – to be in pursuit of long term clients, not one shot projects is the key to success. Think of others needs before your own – recognizing that will also help you be more in tuned with the right timing.

    I have sat on both sides of the table – as a vendor and later as a consultant on the client side – very eye opening experience and probably my best learning came from being a buyer instead of a seller. I think Joe Jackson’s comments are spot on – vendors need better training on the best way to approach a hospital and engage more effectively – frankly, a HIMSS organization would serve their local community well to have opportunities for vendors to learn from clients. Bravo to DFW HIMSS

  12. Great discussion. It reminds me of a cartoon of a salesperson trying to sell a machine gun to a knight fighting a battle with bow & arrow, the knight says “I’m sorry I have no time to meet with salespeople, I’m too busy fighting a battle”.

    I, like many entrepreneurs, come from industry and after years of working on the “client” side saw a need, developed a unique solution to fit that need; I just need to share my idea with prospective users and see if they think it provides value.

    I start with my current network of contacts, they provide positive feedback but soon I need to reach out to people outside my network to see if my idea resonates with them. That requires reaching out to folks I haven’t met before.

    I agree that bogarting a microphone at a conference is bad form, end of discussion on that. But I welcome feedback from the “buyer” side on the best way to approach you with new concepts. Particularly coming from the perspective of being a subject matter expert, having done the “client-side” job for years and wanting to discuss a possible new approach?

    – The Machine Gun Salesman

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