Cold-Call Cascade

Tips for dodging some of those pesky technology pitches.

"I almost never pick up the phone unless I recognize the caller" via Caller ID, says Liz Parker, CIO at Thoits Insurance Service Inc. Lately, however, she has found herself stuck on the line with more vendor sales reps, and Parker thinks she knows why. Her voice-mail message lets callers transfer to the receptionist at the Mountain View, Calif.-based insurer. Industrious sales reps have figured out that if they do this and then ask to be transferred back to Parker, they'll show up on Caller ID as an internal call and she will pick up.

"They're very creative," Parker sighs, with grudging admiration.

The deluge of vendor pitches shows no signs of slowing. And because of tight regulations surrounding faxes and e-mail, the telephone is the salesperson's weapon of choice. So we thought this was a good time to ask some IT managers who make technology purchase decisions what new tactics vendors are using to get their attention.

Unintended Consequences

Nobody ever warned IT managers that the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act (CAN-SPAM), which has been in effect for more than a year, would increase their ration of cold calls. But it did. Unsolicited faxes have been outlawed since 1991, and when CAN-SPAM put a similar choke on unsolicited e-mail pitches, sales representatives from the estimated 255,000 technology vendors in North America started smiling and dialing.

It's an understatement to say that many of those dialers are ineffective. "Most salespeople [in the industry] today have no idea how to sell IT," says Paul R. DiModica, president of DigitalHatch Inc. in Peachtree City, Ga., one of the country's largest IT sales training companies.

"Most people who came into IT sales in the last 10 years grew up in an inbound market," DiModica says, referring to a market in which customers with fat budgets called vendors. "The greatest inbound IT buying ever" happened between 1995 and 2000, he says.

Needless to say, everything changed when the year 2000 rollover was successfully addressed. The stock market, led by the dot-coms, crumbled, and IT budgets shrank dramatically. "In today's outbound market, [salespeople] need to create value" in a phone call, DiModica says. DigitalHatch teaches salespeople to make a compelling case in their first sentence.

Sadly, it appears that not enough reps take such courses. IT managers say the majority of the cold calls that slip through to them are what Michael Taylor, CIO at Todd Pacific Shipyards Corp. in Seattle, calls "robo-calls."

The calls can even turn downright abusive. "We bought a couple of domain names and started getting calls from salespeople wanting to set up our Web site," recalls Mike Murphy, an IT manager at Kiferbaum Construction Corp. Murphy patiently explained to the salespeople that Kiferbaum, a company in Deerfield, Ill., with revenue of about $100 million a year, already had a Web site and was happy with it.

"One woman kept me on the phone 35 minutes," Murphy recalls. Initially polite, the rep got nasty as it became clear she wouldn't win his business. "She said, 'I'm looking at your Web site right now, and it looks terrible.' " Before hanging up, she told Murphy that with a site like that, Kiferbaum was bound to go out of business soon.

Among the IT managers interviewed for this story, there is a grin-and-bear-it attitude toward cold calls. The consensus opinion is that handling somewhere between five and 20 unsolicited calls per day is part of the job -- and thank goodness for Caller ID and the delete button on voice mail.

Ulfelder is a Computerworld contributing writer in Southboro, Mass. Contact him at sulfelder@charter.net.

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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