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Not Now. Or Ever. July 31, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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I have been known to rant a bit on what I perceive to be annoying sales practices.  Just when you think you’ve seen it all, someone comes up with yet another way to completely irritate a potential customer.  The latest trick is the “presumptive appointment.”

With the universal adoption of calendaring systems, most everyone has grown accustomed to receiving appointment invitations via email.  While such appointments are very common within an organization, they’ve generally not expanded beyond organizations.  Recently, however, people have been sending more invitations to people outside of their email domain, which is generally useful and makes scheduling a meeting a little easier.

That’s where the annoying salespeople come in.  Lately I’ve gotten meeting requests from salespeople for meetings I did not agree to attend.  In the body of the message, they do not ask for my time; rather, they ask me to supply a different time if their proposed time is not convenient.  The real question, whether I want to meet with them, is ignored.

This is like someone showing up at your house, unannounced, looking for dinner.  When you awkwardly try to refuse their request, they innocently ask, “Oh, is this not a good time to have dinner?  When would be better for you?” Well, how about “never?”

A responsible salesperson goes about this in a different way. After a productive introductory conversation, he or she might ask if a follow-up meeting is in order.  If I agree, we then compare calendars and find a mutually convenient time.  To close out that negotiation, I’ll ask them to send a meeting request to confirm the appointment.  The calendar entry represents the result of our negotiation, not the starting point.

I am constantly amazed at how rude a small subset of salespeople can be.  All the hardworking, polite salespeople that go about things in the right way should beat these ignorant few with a stick. Are there large groups of people that accept these invitations without prior discussion?  If so, stop!  Like the insane people that respond to spam email, you are only encouraging more bad behavior.  We’re all suffering as a result.

Where The Prices Are Insane! July 10, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Technology.
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It happens four times a year, like clockwork.  Just before the end of March, June, September, and December, the phone calls and emails flood in, all promising the same thing: unheard-of pricing on products you absolutely cannot live without.  These once-in-a-lifetime prices are only available for a short time, if you act now!

What’s being sold at immense discounts?  ShamWow or Snuggis?  A Pocket Fisherman or a 12-CD set of the greatest hits from the 70s?

Nope.  The big sale is on software.  Big software: databases, ERPs, business intelligence platforms, and the like.  Even with the fabulous discounts, the prices still run well into six figures, plus implementation costs.

Who buys software like this?  Is there a CIO anywhere in the world who will write a check and buy software at the drop of a hat?

Done correctly, big system purchases take a long time.  Requirements analysis and market evaluation are tedious but vital to ensure a good fit for your organization.  Understanding the deployment costs and timeframe is crucial for success and can takes weeks to figure out.  Just reading and negotiating the support and licensing contracts is a major exercise all by itself.

Moreover, as CIOs work to gain the respect of their executive peers, the last thing any of us should be doing is running to the CFO’s office on June 30th, looking for a signature to close a deal before 5 PM.  Rushing a deal to save a buck is unprofessional, and any other C-level executive should question our abilities if we behave like that.

That isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate a good deal.  But the right way to approach a quarter-end discount is to start working towards it at the beginning of the quarter.  Everyone on both sides of the table knows that pricing gets tighter as the quarter and year ends.  By doing all the heavy lifting well before that time, we can focus on solid price negotiation without being pressured to short-circuit our diligence when things go down to the wire.

I really appreciate those vendors that come to me well in advance to put together a great deal with plenty of time to spare.  Not only does that let me do my job on my side, it also lets me manage the process with my management team, giving them plenty of time to learn about the proposal.  When I do go forward with the final pricing at the end of the quarter, there are no surprises to delay the process.  By helping my company reach a good decision in a timely fashion, a vendor makes themselves (and my team) look good.

Selling is about relationships and providing solid value over time.  Vendors, please leave the high-pressure tactics to late-night TV ads and used car lots, and give your customers time to evaluate and respond to good offers in a timely fashion.  We’ll all close on more deals with a lot less stress.

Whose Fault? Yours. June 19, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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As CIOs, we lead a service organization.  Although there is much talk of late about turning IT into a profit center, the reality is that most companies rely on IT to get something else done.  Just as finance, legal, and HR provide crucial support to help a company succeed, IT provides important services that allow the other employees to accomplish their jobs and serve the external customers.

By definition, service organizations exist to serve their customers. This may seem a bit obvious, but there are many IT shops that have lost sight of this core principle.  Our job is not to find cool new tools, or nifty phones, or the sleekest laptops.  Our job is to help people get their jobs done as quickly and efficiently as possible, using technology where appropriate.

When people fail to get their jobs done as quickly and efficiently as possible, it’s our fault.  Period.  It doesn’t matter why they failed; we still own the problem.  That’s a hard concept for some people in IT to grasp and accept.

Anyone who has worked in IT for any length of time has seen this happen.  We listen to our users and determine there is a need we can fulfill. We diligently collect requirements and build a potential solution.  With the users’ approval and assistance, we develop some new tool.  We provide training and support.  After scrupulous testing, we release the tool to its intended audience.

A smashing success?  Not always. Users get confused.  They make mistakes.  They didn’t attend all the training, or misunderstood the documentation.  They forgot to tell us everything during the requirements meetings, or didn’t provide a complete testing regimen.

Whose fault?  Ours.   We should have asked more questions. We should have asked for more testing.  We should have rethought usage scenarios.  We should have anticipated certain mistakes and found alternatives.  No matter what goes wrong, we are at fault.  Figure out why, fix it, and file away the lessons learned for next time.

IT folks at every level fall into an easy trap when they start complaining and fussing about the end users.  It’s easy to push blame onto the unsuspecting customers when a system is used incorrectly or mistakes are made.  After all our hard work, how could they still get it wrong?

Easy: because we obviously did not work hard enough.  We build this stuff; we must ensure people can use it effectively.  If they can’t, we dropped the ball somewhere.  Railing about the users does not fix the problem.  It only annoys the users, makes us look petty, and reduces our ability to serve them.

This concept, that we are always at fault, is at the core of our ability to serve and satisfy customers.  The burden sits with us to make it right, do it better, and meet our customer’s needs.  If you are in IT, and you cannot accept this or live up to it, you have chosen the wrong career.  Get out now, before you make the rest of us look bad.

The Original Social Media Guru June 8, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Book Reviews, Networking.
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If you spend any time doing anything on the internet, you will soon stumble across a special kind of expert who is just dying to help you improve your virtual social life.  These self-professed Social Media Gurus promise to reveal deep secrets about Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, all designed to garner you more followers, more attention, and more interest on the internet.

Let’s face it: the vast, vast majority of Social Media Gurus know just a teeny bit more than you do about all this stuff.  If you really wanted to learn their secrets, ten minutes with Google (or Bing, which is growing on me) will make you a Social Media Guru, too.  And if you really want 100,000 followers, or friends, or connections, one mortifying YouTube video should do the trick.

All these social networking tools are just communication tools: conduits for information. You can learn the mechanics of any of them in a day, and absorb most of the culture in a week.  But that doesn’t make you any more social, although you may have made a good start at a network.

What matters is what you send over those conduits.  The information you share and how you respond to others is what’s important. It’s the content that counts, not the mechanics of the tool.

Most modern Social Media Gurus want to teach you the mechanics.  This is not social networking, just like understanding the mechanics of a piano is not going to make you a piano player.  Very few Social Media Gurus can teach you what to send using these systems, once you have mastered the mechanics.

Sadly, the very best Social Media Guru died in 1955, before any of these things were invented. Fortunately for us, he wrote down all his secrets well before he passed away.  That Guru was Dale Carnegie, and his secrets are revealed in his book, How To Win Friends & Influence People.

If you have never read this book, do yourself a great favor and pick up a copy.  For Amazon’s bargain price of $8.70 ($0.96 on your Kindle) you can learn the secrets of the greatest Social Media Guru in history.  Carnegie’s book is easy to read, with each concept presented in a short chapter with supporting anecdotes.  If even that’s too much for you, he summarizes each chapter with a one-line moral at the end.  The anecdotes are delightful, recalling social situations from the 1920’s and 1930’s that are still relevant today.

If you have read this book before, read it again.  You will have the same revelations all over again, and be even more committed to changing the way you communicate with people. Carnegie was among the first, and is still the best, Social Media Guru.

I won’t even try to summarize Carnegie’s advice here.  Click the link above, buy the book, and start your summer reading with the one book that could truly improve every relationship you have.

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Spelling Bee! June 1, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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By chance, I stumbled upon the finals of the National Spelling Bee last week.  I watched a bit for fun, but was soon completely captivated.  I wound up watching all ten rounds to see who would win.

I am a stickler for correct spelling.  Spelling, like math, is either right or wrong. There is no “close enough” in spelling, even if the reader can figure out what you were trying to say.  Poor spelling says, in effect, “I can’t figure this out; you do it.”

It was fascinating to see the competitors work through the Bee.  For each word, they were able to ask questions about origin and meaning, as well as alternate pronunciations and appropriate usage.  The color commentator was great, explaining how these clues helped.  Word origin is especially helpful since various root and suffix patterns differ between Latin, Greek, and Germanic origins.  Sure enough, one kid used the Greek origin of a word to pick out the correct “rrh” pattern in the middle of a medical term.

As all these things do, it came down to a four-time competitor and a newby, battling through the list of “Championship Words.”  The newcomer, seventh-grader Tim Ruiter, missed “maecenas.” This opened the door for Kavya Shivashankar to nail “laodicean” for the win.  Personally, I didn’t think this was fair.  “Maecenas” has that awful blended “ae” and a soft “c,” making it almost impossible to spell if you haven’t seen it before.  “Laodicean,” on the other hand, is spelled exactly as it sounds and is a somewhat more common word.

Although I think a better final round would involve soundproof chambers and everyone spelling the same words at the same time, I can’t complain about the general intent of the Bee: to reward those who care to get it right, who take the time to do the job well.

Would that we would all apply similar discipline and focus to everything we do, spelling or otherwise.  Many people view spelling as a small, inconsequential thing, but it represents a far larger concern.  There is no difference between a writer with poor spelling and a painter who does sloppy trim work, or a carpenter who doesn’t sand everything evenly.  Either you care enough to do a job right, or you don’t.

Spelling matters.  Grammar matters. Punctuation matters.  Neat painting and smooth furniture matter.  As does making that extra call to a customer, taking an extra moment to listen to someone’s concerns, or working a bit harder to understand a problem.  Little things do matter, and all the things that seem big are really just lots of little things strung together.  Get the little things right, and the big things will come much easier.