CIOs: more partners and less vendors

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In my discussions with CIOs during the COVID 19 crisis, I have heard them say repeatedly that they want more partners and less vendors. While I personally assumed that I knew the difference between a partner and vendor, I thought it was time to dig in and understand the distinction from the CIO's perspective.

How has COVID-19 changed things?

CIOs say they are watching more how the organizations that serve them behave. They are adding vendors in a purely transactional relationships only where they really need their product. At the same time, they are looking to do more of their business with partners. This includes proactively evaluating their portfolios and making decisions increasingly based on who stood up and helped versus those who said send us money, we let you use our product, and here's your increase for this year. CIOs are clearly gauging whether suppliers have been proactive and acted like empathetic partners.

CIOs do understand that some organizations wanted to respond but have been unable to support them given dramatically increased demand. Look at what happened to Zoom and others early in the crisis. Analyst Dion Hinchcliffe says that "CIOs have been challenged by their vendors and partners during COVID-19. Some too opportunistically. Others severely strained by sudden demand from all their IT buyers. Given this, I see the following trends: 1) fewer, better strategic partners; 2) new smaller vendors; and 3) rationalization across the IT portfolio." Hinchcliffe goes on to suggest that this is why smart organizations build strategic partnerships, ahead of time. "For times like these." To keep up the good behavior, some CIOs interestingly have praised partners publicly and persistently during COVID, knowing times are tough and these partners have saved them by accommodating escalating everything for them.

Have partners found ways to treat you differently?

There are some great examples of what partners do differently. Some partners called CIOs wanting to be sure what was thrown in is the best long-term solution or to make sure that they are delivering what they promised. CIO David Seidl said, "Cisco reached out and said how can we help? Here's what we're doing and what is available to you proactively, but we know that it may not be what you need. So please know the door is open." He says that he "was delighted by their response." Meanwhile, he says that he's "seen other vendors who have promised to help and did not deliver."

CIOs say that the best partners listened, to understand their customer needs, and then reacted quickly to help. In these cases, CIOs were able to do some amazing things in short order with this help. Then there were others who were less interested to help. In some cases, supposed partners revealed themselves as merely vendors that pretended to be partners. The fact is real; partners go above and beyond the whole time. This all matters because CIOs are challenged to make the best of what they have with changing IT budgets. Today, CIOs suggest that they don't need another point solution. They need to find fewer, better partners.

What makes your top IT partners successful?

Simply put, top partners understand that doing business is about more than the sale. They get to know their customers and build a real relationship, not just a transactional sales relationship; they offer resources and time knowing that that will pay off; they understand their customers' business models and meet customers there. In short, they invest with customers for the long term.

CIO Page Francis says "successful partners listen and find solutions with us rather than simply execute for us. They push back when we're wrong. The reality is we develop partnerships to smooth our gaps. And I expect board-ready documents from them showing the impact and value right-sized things here." Effectively, partnership is, therefore, about mutual transparency and trust. CIOs trust partners to talk to their team and be candid, and partners trust CIOs to provide honest feedback – whether it be good or bad. Simply put, trust is the backbone of real partner relationship.

At the same time, partners seem to understand customers as people. The best partners seem to understand the CIO's style and support them with whatever they need. That includes things like sales or support staff on site without question for an outage or other issue. The best partners look at how they can truly help the customer, not at what they can charge the customer. This is how CIOs define a partner.

Establishing the right connections

Partners provide the right people with the right approach, recognizing that connecting with folks at appropriate levels is more effective than going through the CIO all of the time. Additionally, CIOs say things work best when there is one primary contact person that is business not sales. This can include having customer success managers as long as they don't add another layer and do help lead to business success. CIOs say that they worry when one gets added until they prove they can actually be helpful and effective. However, CIOs reveal that some of their most important partners just have great account executives that are there long after the deal is done.

Some CIOs feel customer success managers are best when selling tools to business users or IT and the buyer/sponsor is a step removed from the implementation. However, Hinchcliffe suggests "as IT products have become more numerous and much more complex, throwing them over the wall and hoping customers do well with them isn't working anymore. Customer success and other more outcome-based sales models can really make a difference."

What guidance would you give to partners? 

There was tremendous guidance provided so I am listing it in order of reoccurrence.

  • Understand what our problems are and then tell us how you can help solve them. Help us hit our goals and we both win
  • Listen
  • Understand that this is a long-term relationship, not just a single sale. If you do that, you're going to be fine
  • Meet us where we are today with no upselling
  • Understand our success criteria
  • Find and fix things without being asked. Don't wait to be called upon to help. Proactively intervene when things go wrong
  • Don't push irrelevant cross sells and upsells, instead bring us fresh, timely ideas
  • Understand our big picture

Most IT organizations want partners on a go forward basis. Hopefully, this insight from CIOs will help IT organizations trying to figure out who to work with on a go forward basis; and partners solidify that your role is to help customers succeed at their objectives. It is time for sellers to take a long-term view of their customer relationships.