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How Enterprise Clients Buy, feat. Ariel Yoffie (former IBM)

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In order to know how to sell, we first must understand how buyers buy. And if you’re selling into Fortune 100 companies, you’ll definitely want to hear former IBM employee Ariel Yoffie’s in-depth, step-by-step process for evaluating vendors.

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Check out the four sales fundamentals every top performer masters, how to use value-based selling to increase your leverage, and how to improve your remote selling skills as the world becomes more virtual. 

When it comes to selling to enterprise clients, the first thing to understand is how they buy. Sure, there are tips and tricks that you can employ to leverage a more effective sales process. But none of it matters if your enterprise sales strategy isn’t aligned with their buying process.

That’s exactly what I tried to understand in a conversation with former IBM employee Ariel Yoffie. She headed up several large purchasing decisions for them and was kind enough to share what she learned.

What follows are lessons that you can apply to selling to enterprise clients, all pulled from Ariel’s experience as a buyer at IBM.

Here are the top takeaways from my conversation with Ariel (which she’s also written about here).

When you serve enterprise clients, there are thousands of users and use cases.

One thing that Ariel makes clear right from the beginning is the enormity of the buying process. She urges patience, and “endurance” throughout the process.

That is, enterprise clients have a long and grueling sales cycle.

It’s not for the faint of heart, and you can’t be in a hurry. Her buying cycle was long and complicated.

There were 5 phases of evaluation.

There were five distinct phases of evaluation:

  1. Reviewing vendors’ websites

  2. Sending an inbound request and receiving a response from the vendor

  3. Discovery and demo calls

  4. RFP submission and evaluation

  5. Proof of concept

Take note here: your enterprise sales process should align closely with the buying process. I’ll get to a key difference I recommend when it comes to RFPs a bit later.

After Ariel evaluated every option in the market, 27 companies had websites good enough to receive an inbound request. Only 4 vendors made it to the last stage in the process before she made a selection with the other decision makers.

Stage #2 proved complicated for some. You’d think it would be straightforward for a company to respond to a lead, but it wasn’t. Some companies took up to 3 weeks to respond, while some never did. For Ariel, 48 hours is a good benchmark for acceptable response time.

Be honest and make the sales process easy.

Selling anything can frustrating, but think about your buyer. In Ariel’s case, buying was difficult too.

She urges all sellers – whether you’re selling a product or service – to send a quick response and always be honest.

IBM needs to see integrity and endurance throughout the process. So only make promises that you can deliver, otherwise you’ll lose the client in the long run, even if you win them now.

“Some of the winners were the people who walked away,” she said. These sellers didn’t waste time by moving farther in the process. They were willing to walk away as soon as they identified a mismatch. But who wants to lose?

They didn’t lose.

The sales rep bolstered the brand’s standing in Ariel’s mind, even though they didn’t do business together. These are the kind of referral moments that can make a big difference.

Needs get surfaced many different ways.

There’s no single way that enterprise clients suddenly need a product or service. Sometimes it happens organically based on internal discussions. Sometimes they attempt to fix the problem themselves, and do it unsuccessfully.

In one case, they had an expiring contract with a vendor and began to look elsewhere. Which tells us two things:

  1. We’d do well to figure out when our prospects’ contracts are expiring with competing companies

  2. The right time to focus on customer success is much before the end of the contract

The best sales reps help with ROI analysis.

Making the business case is more important than the price. Ariel always had to build a business case and submit it to finance before a purchasing decision was final.

She developed a spreadsheet and made the case to the CFO of her business unit. “At IBM, every decision should be data-driven,” she said.

And when she had a rep that helped her do the ROI analysis, it helped her build the case. Remember, she’s already sold by this point. And knowing how content is shared, like the ROI analysis, will help accelerate your sale.

Remember the bit about making buying easy?

Just remember to be careful with ROI early in the sales process.

Decisions require a lot of people and time.

Hundreds of people participated in decisions with higher stakes purchases, which are 6-figures and above. One particular decision took over a year to do the research, RFPs, proofs of concept, and a final decision. While the data shows that 6.8 decision makers are involved in a sale, the reality is that that number swells quickly.

She buys services the same way as products.

There’s almost no difference between the purchase of products and services. For Ariel, the same 5-step process was used every time.

Given IBM’s extensive services business, she’d sometimes hire internally for service contracts, then make a decision about whether she needed an outside vendor instead.

If I’m selling to a company that provides services, I can bet they’ve tried and failed to solve their problem before talking to me. And wouldn’t it be good to know why?

RFP process can be sidestepped with a good proof of concept.

I don’t advocate that you participate in RFP processes. They’re rarely fair, they’re always expensive, and they’re quite risky in terms of the cost of sale.

I asked Ariel if she’d ever consider exempting a firm from the RFP process, and the answer is only in some cases.

The bottom line: you need to be different. The more you stand out from commoditized vendors, the more leverage you have in the sales process.

There is a note of caution on the proof of concept though. If you don’t want to do a free proof of concept, you need to go through the procurement process. Some will survive, some won’t.

Conclusion

Winning enterprise clients means you first need to understand how they buy, and have an enterprise sales process that aligns. Keep in mind that the findings here are from one single interview and not representative of all buyers. What’s clear is that Fortune 100 buying cycles are long and expensive.

Patience and endurance are the keys.

For more information on remote selling and a complete list of links mentioned in this podcast, visit this remote selling article on our website.


How Enterprise Clients Buy, feat. Ariel Yoffie (former IBM):

Full Transcript

Liston W.:
For your larger deals, let’s say six figures and above, just ballpark about how many people were involved in making that final decision?

Ariel Yoffie:
Hundreds.

Liston W.:
Wow. Okay.

Ariel Yoffie:
Sort of the most recent one was that marketing automation customer engagement platform, so that was a year in the making. We went through a bake off, that bake off led into a longer RFP with more requirements, where we found flaws in both of the platforms that we had and then we had a contract expiring. So there were a number of factors that led up to that point. And then all of the stakeholders who were already using the platform that I managed prior to that had to be engaged. So there were about 8,500 people worldwide using that platform and then we expanded it to the rest of the IBM marketing teams and product management teams after that.

Liston W.:
Welcome to Modern Sales, a podcast for entrepreneurs, business owners, and salespeople looking to have more and better conversations with your perfect clients. You’ll get a healthy scoop of psychology, behavioral economics and sales studies to help you create win-win relationships. I’m your host, Liston Witherill, and I’m pleased to welcome you to Modern Sales.

Liston W.:
Selling to enterprise clients is tough. You need patience. You need good marketing. You need a service that can actually serve them and you need to be clever and show how your solution is truly different. It can take two decision makers or five or 50 or more to get a deal done. I can regale you with facts and figures about just how difficult it is, but what about what the actual buyers say? That’s what I’m here to determine with you in this series called Buyers Insights. In this short series, which is a pilot, I’ll be talking to three separate enterprise buyers who share their stories about what it takes to sell to them and how they make buying decisions.

Liston W.:
In this first episode, I’m talking to Ariel Yoffie, a former IBM employee who shares her detailed blow-by-blow process for buying software and services while she was there at IBM. She wrote an article on Medium with the intention of helping vendors sell more effectively, which would’ve made her buying life a whole lot easier too. Now, I would love your feedback on this series. Let me know, what do you think about buyers insights? I personally think this is really good stuff. If you have any feedback on the Buyers Insight series, please email me directly, liston@servedontsell.com, or feel free to hit me up on LinkedIn. Let me know what did you like? What didn’t you like? What questions should I have asked that I didn’t? Who would you like to hear on this series? Whether it’s people from a specific department or from a type of business or industry.

Liston W.:
I want your feedback. Let me know. Buyer’s Insights series. As I said, this first episode is with Ariel Yoffie and what was the number one most important thing she used to evaluate whether she’d even contact a vendor. It’s so simple, it’ll make you slap your forehead, but so many companies get it wrong. I’ll have the answer for you in my full interview with Ariel right after the short break.

Liston W.:
Ariel, I’d like to start, if you could first talk a little bit about your role at IBM on the growth stack team. What specifically did you do and what was the goal of that team?

Ariel Yoffie:
Yeah, we were part of the digital business unit, as it was called. So the goal of the entire business unit was to help IBM transform from being a non-digital, non-self-service, non-customer centric, to being fully self service digitally enabled end-to-end, and my specific scope implied marketing automation and customer engagement platforms, all the data piping into it and the analytics and dashboarding coming out of it, as well as acquiring machine learning base lead scoring and content recommendations to improve in an automated, scalable way. So everything from the in-app messages that you get on the ibm.com website to orchestrating that in order to have a better customer experience when you log into IBM cloud or any of the IBM products digitally, all the way through to when you’re a customer and helping you get started on your database or whatever.

Liston W.:
I see. So the tools you were buying for IBM was for IBM customers? It wasn’t for IBM’s customers to use on their own customers, correct?

Ariel Yoffie:
It was for IBM to message customers. So our whole goal was to empower product management, content strategy and design, and marketing to work together with their product engineers in order to better engage with IBM’s customers. So IBM employees were my customers and we were all serving IBM customers.

Liston W.:
And just for the benefit of anyone listening to this, you mentioned marketing automation. What are some other categories of tools or software products that you are buying?

Ariel Yoffie:
Yeah, so I worked on buying segment, so customer data platform, analytics. So we ended up with Amplitude, but I evaluated pretty much everyone in this space, and dashboarding. So companies like Chart.io and Looker, we use both. Marketing automation and customer engagement. So we use a mix of a chat platform, an email sending platform and something for in-app and orchestration. So across all of those channels. And in addition, the machine learning I mentioned for lead scoring we were looking at, MadKudu is what we ended up going with, but we evaluated the entire space. And also piping data across these different integrations and making sure that they were consistent with our data scheme. So things like Tray.io Is what we ended up using, but we looked at the entire market for that.

Liston W.:
Awesome. So thanks for the rundown of all the different types of products you were buying. One of the reasons that we’re talking right now, actually the reason is because Francis from MadKudu, who was on the podcast previously, recommended that I read an article that you wrote and that article was all about how you would engage with vendors while you were at IBM. And so, my question for you is what do too many vendors get wrong about the sales process and how should they fix it?

Ariel Yoffie:
Great question. When you’re a large company like IBM and you have to serve not one team, but thousands worldwide, there are a number of considerations and I also look across the entire market, not just the one. So when I was evaluating marketing automation platforms, I looked at 27 vendors. That’s the ones I narrowed down based on their website. So 27 demos, of which about three-quarters were given our review for proposal. In other words, a list of requirements. It was about 200. And then lastly, only four went into a proof of concept phase. So just to recap, there are sort of one, two, three, four, five phases.

Ariel Yoffie:
One is your website. Super important to get that right. Two, is how quickly you reach out and how that outreach feels from a customer perspective. IBM is accustomed to getting very fast responses from vendors. It was very surprising when some vendors just would not engage with me and it took an inbound from my VP to someone that she knew at the company in order to get us a sales rep. Then the next phase after that is the demo, the first demo and disco call. I put those together because disco calls are sort of throw away for me. I find them horribly repetitive. I say the same thing every time and I actually just have a script now and I copy and paste it.

Ariel Yoffie:
The purpose of a disco call is to establish a rapport and get ready for what kind of pitch you’re going to make at the demo. Are you going to try and make it such that I feel comfortable in the demo or are you going to try and play hardball and build up anticipation? Both are valid strategies, but my preference is that relationship building, disco call and demo. Then there’s the demo itself and that one’s all about not so much the demo, because almost all of the, especially in these commoditized markets like analytics and marketing automation, they all look the same.

Ariel Yoffie:
So it’s more so about did you listen to me when I was telling you about my use cases? And very often salespeople will rely on their go-to pitch in order to get to the demo. And then lastly is the RFP. For large, large companies, it’s all about endurance. And for in the sense, can you get through all 200 requirements? Tell me yes, no. Do you meet this requirement or partial, and on anything that you say yes, are you being honest? And then lastly in proof of concept, I mean it’s all to prove whether or not what you said throughout the process leading up to that point is actually accurate.

Liston W.:
I see. So 27 companies survive the website test and then you reached out to, I think all of them. Some of them may have been easier to get ahold of than others. And then you had four proof of concepts. Where in between there did most companies go wrong between the website and actually moving forward to proof of concept?

Ariel Yoffie:
One company couldn’t decide which rep was assigned to my lead, so they went wrong on, I had to talk to eight different people in order to get a demo. And at that point it was too little too late. Another was they went wrong by just not responding or responding very slowly. So, speed is everything. I will forget about you if you’re a number 22 on my list and I have 27 vendors that I’m trying to manage at that stage. And lastly, lack of authenticity or dishonesty gets people thrown out every time.

Liston W.:
On the speed subject, what is your expectation? What would qualify as fast enough? Because it’s, I understand what you’re saying. If you respond last, obviously you’re going to be less interested in that person, but how do I know as a vendor what qualifies as fast enough for you?

Ariel Yoffie:
I think no more than 48 hours is fair. If you’re responding two to three weeks later, I don’t necessarily check my email for those inbounds from vendors in a generic sense. I usually am looking for, did I get a followup from a specific vendor? If I search for your name and I don’t find an email in response to my demo request after the confirmation, I’ll assume that you haven’t prioritized me as a lead.

Liston W.:
Wow. Okay, so between a 48 hours and three weeks. That’s a big time frame. I’m kind of shocked to learn that it’s taken companies that long to respond to a lead as hot as IBM and as big as IBM. That’s really interesting.

Ariel Yoffie:
I think it’s actually a common mistake to think that just because it’s IBM, it means it’s a good lead. Some of the winners in this race of 27 vendors were the people who walked away. I remember very distinctly this one vendor, we scheduled the demo in a timely fashion, so she won my trust very quickly, but then after the disco and then the demo calls, she was just like, the salesperson said, “You know what, it sounds like we’re not a fit. I’m going to move on and I wish you the best of luck in your search.” That was the absolute right thing for her to do, because now I respect that brand and she didn’t waste her time on a use case that didn’t fit what the product could do.

Liston W.:
Okay, so hold on. I don’t want to devolve into a semantic argument, but I am taking some issue with what you said in that this particular vendor treated IBM as a solid lead initially and she was willing to investigate that, which is what I was maybe unsuccessfully trying to say, but eventually she determined that the best way to serve you was to say, “No, we’re not the right fit.” And I agree with you, we should all be doing that.

Ariel Yoffie:
Yes.

Liston W.:
Okay.

Ariel Yoffie:
Good clarification. I agree with you. She reached out in a timely fashion, therefore, it felt like she built trust even though she was willing to walk away.

Liston W.:
Right. Which I mean, my whole thing is serve, don’t sell. And so if we are truly going to be in service of the people that we interact with, some percentage of the time we’re going to have to tell them that we’re not the right fit, that we can’t help them because otherwise we’d be full of crap. So I think you and I can agree on that.

Ariel Yoffie:
Definitely.

Liston W.:
Let’s take an example of one of the types of vendor categories you were going after, and you can choose analytics, marketing, automation, whatever it is. How do you first surface the need internally that that’s something that you and your team and IBM really needs right now? Like where does that need come from? How do you first realize this is something we need to figure out?

Ariel Yoffie:
There are a couple of ways. One is it just happens organically. We decide we need to experiment with a new method of communicating with customers, with having better ways of analyzing data, with how we manage that data and track it and bring it to downstream integrations. Other times, like I think about when we started using segment, we actually started it as a proof of concept building in-house. And we had a bake off between three different teams and basically what we learned was from a strategy perspective, we all agreed that it was important to have centralized data in the sense of one customer profile across all 1,000 products, and whatever that customer does we track in a consistent and translatable, transferable and easy to use way for all of the tools that we would integrate. And buying new tool shouldn’t be hard. Those were all designed principles that we agreed to from a strategic standpoint, not just within our business unit but across all of IBM.

Ariel Yoffie:
So we evaluated all of the customer data platforms available. Where we ran into issue actually came later. So we have encountered as a team, this sort of team that manages the growth stack called Growth Engine at IBM. Multiple, what I call take-down decks, and this happens all the time. I have friends at other large companies who do the same thing that I did and they have in-house or internal competition, and for good reason. The value of being able to question each other’s decisions means that you’ll make a better decision in the end.

Ariel Yoffie:
And so, what we would do is do a proof of concept in a production way, like acquire this new tool, then over a period of time show that it created the impact that we had expected when we acquired it. Does that make sense?

Liston W.:
Yeah, totally.

Ariel Yoffie:
And this is why at Iterable now I think it’s so important that we empower our customers to be able to do ROI analysis and that was always my top focus when I brought in new tools. And the best sales reps would always offer to help me with ROI analysis. Late in the deal, pricing negotiations are getting heated, and that’s how they would say, “Okay, we know this costs more than what you were expecting, but we can’t bring it down anymore. What if we do the ROI analysis with you and commit services to that?” Make sense?

Liston W.:
It does. And is that something that you would personally use or was that for other people on your team who were maybe more heading up the price negotiations?

Ariel Yoffie:
That was for me personally, so I worked on the pricing negotiations part as well, and writing the business case. I wasn’t sure if this is something that your audience already knows a lot about, but most of these large companies, whether sometimes it’s done through procurement or finance, sometimes it’s done on the business side, but we have to build a business case. In my case at IBM, I always had to build a business case from me, submit it to finance, sometimes the financial analyst would collaborate with me, but most of the time it was just me creating a financial quantitatively driven case, like an Excel spreadsheet, of this is the cost and then this is the potential revenue we’re going to get out of using this tool, and walk the CFO of our business unit through those assumptions and the analysis and why the tool fit our needs at the time.

Liston W.:
And you were able to break that down, the attribution of say, the contribution of analytics versus the contribution of data warehousing versus the contribution of marketing automation?

Ariel Yoffie:
Well, when you say attribution, it sounds like you’re referring to revenue.

Liston W.:
Well, you said ROI. Right?

Ariel Yoffie:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Liston W.:
Okay. So how would you determine the ROI then? If all of these things are working in conjunction?

Ariel Yoffie:
Yeah, I mean, it’s different for different tools. Marketing automation attribution is a fundamental requirement. That was one of the lines in our RFP, but for dashboarding and analytics tools, there’s no direct revenue. So what we would do is measure it in terms of adoption. The principle, the strategy from a top level was every decision at IBM should be data driven. And so in order to drive decisions, being more data-driven, you have to have a high level of adoption. So we would create an adoption roadmap and have the return on the investment be based on, okay, if we have one team of 50 people adopt this analytics tool, instead of buying their own tool and having redundant amounts of data stored, we have this much in cost saving.

Liston W.:
Okay, so avoided costs in this case?

Ariel Yoffie:
Yes, exactly.

Liston W.:
Understood. Okay. But you couldn’t quantify the value of adoption necessarily. You could just say, “Hey, we all agree that this is a primary driver of our business and so it’s a good thing. Now, let’s look at what the alternatives would be if we didn’t do it this way.”

Ariel Yoffie:
Well, in the case of some of our tools, we actually directly measured adoption and retention of these tools. So Amplitude would deliver to us a dashboard of what the retention was for each of the business units of IBM employees using Amplitude.

Liston W.:
Okay. But again, so can you quantify the value, so you can quantify how many people are using it. Sure. Right? Fairly easy. Are they logging in? How often? What is your threshold for an active user? But, can you quantify the value to IBM of more people logging in? Or are you just saying sort of qualitatively like we all agree that this is important.

Ariel Yoffie:
Cost savings was the quantitative measure.

Liston W.:
I see. Okay.

Ariel Yoffie:
But what we would measure, I mean maybe this is sort of a different way of looking at it because we were trying to promote this customer centric thinking in this transformation at IBM, that adoption metric was not so much qualitative as it was quantitative. It was super important. We were measured, because adoption determined the success after the cost savings. That’s another way to think about it. If we had low adoption than that cost saving is pointless. You can manage costs many ways, because we had two goals being more data-driven and saving costs, they went hand-in-hand. Does that make sense?

Liston W.:
Yeah, totally. I completely get it. So I want to change gears a little bit. Back to the beginning where you said the way you initiated your process to talk to any vendor was to basically say, “Hey, we’re interested in this category and you’re going to go out and find every vendor in that category and you’ll narrow it down based on their website.” I’m wondering, did cold outreach ever work when vendors reached out to you cold? And if so, why did you respond to some and not others?

Ariel Yoffie:
The only time I’ve responded to a cold outreach was when they had already spoken to someone else. And I don’t know whether this was real or not. They were definitely at the same conference, but I got a phone call and a voicemail from an SDR. This company called IDEO and he said, “Oh Hey, I met with Harriet, your VP last week, and she said that you would be evaluating us as a potential content recommendation AI vendor. I’d love to set up a demo with you.” And that’s how we set up the evaluation process. When I actually talked to Harriet, when she got back from some vacation, he had timed it perfectly. It was just complete serendipity for him. She had no recollection of this meeting.

Liston W.:
Maybe it was like they shared a table over one cocktail or something and yeah. It’s funny how we define that.

Ariel Yoffie:
Yeah, I’d say besides that, almost never. I do want to sort of hit on something that you said, it wasn’t really arbitrary like we’re going to go into this category. We would actually evaluate what was needed inside of a team or a business unit. That’s how we would come up with the RFP document, is we would actually, similar to the product development and product management process, identify all of these problems that needed to be solved and the requirements in order to solve it correctly. And that’s how we would sort of say, “Okay, this type of tool generally addresses this need.” So just as an example, like we needed a way to collect customer feedback and feature requests in a programmatic and consistent way. And it needed to integrate with segment. So we just looked at the segment catalog and evaluated each of those, found the one that fit for the need at that time, and then re-evaluated when we weren’t getting the results we expected. Does that make sense?

Liston W.:
It does, yeah. I’m wondering in terms of decision making to go with one vendor or another. So you have this whole process, you get a demo, there’s an RFP that goes out and then you have proof of concept and in some cases you’ve had four, at least, different vendors doing that. How do you make a final decision about which vendor you’re actually going to go with and engage with?

Ariel Yoffie:
It depends on the type of vendor, how much time I have, and the budget. In my case, customer engagement and marketing automation were sort of my baby at IBM. So I dedicated myself full-time, and we had a lot of resources, and an engineer and multiple teams that were dependent on us and willing to do proof of concept testing in concert with myself and the engineer. But then on the flip side with something a little bit lower priority, like that feature request, we didn’t even do a proof of concept because it was so low cost. So part of it is a cost thing. If we’re going to make a very big expensive investment in something, that’s a very different set of criteria compared to, I don’t know, something that’s $20 a month.

Liston W.:
Well, right. That wouldn’t be worth anyone’s time. They’d say, “Ariel, why are you wasting my time with this?”

Ariel Yoffie:
Yeah, exactly. And in that case it just makes more sense to do the proof of concept after you put in your corporate card.

Liston W.:
Right.

Ariel Yoffie:
And like the best processes are ones where it’s just signing up for a trial, because you know there’s a need and it’s in the backlog and it’s something you’ve been wanting to do for a while, and someone reaches out, they tell you, you already have a corporate agreement. Here’s the person that you need to reach out to. That’s what happened to us with Optimizely, because it was just another very distant part of the marketing department that owned that contract. Or it could be something like, it’s super easy, you don’t have to go through the procurement and legal processes in order to add this to your stack. Here you go.

Liston W.:
And so for your larger deals, let’s say six figures and above, just ballpark about how many people were involved in making that final decision?

Ariel Yoffie:
Hundreds.

Liston W.:
Wow. Okay.

Ariel Yoffie:
Yeah. Well, if you think about, there’s … leading up to sort of the most recent one was that marketing automation customer engagement platform. So that was a year in the making, that purchase. And we went through a bake off, that bake off led into a longer RFP with more requirements where we found flaws in both of the platforms that we had to date. And then we had a contract expiring. So there were a number of factors that led up to that point.

Ariel Yoffie:
And then all of the stakeholders who are already using the platform that I managed prior to that had to be engaged. So there were about, at the time it was only 8,500 people worldwide using that platform. And then we expanded it to the rest of the IBM marketing teams and product management teams after that, once we acquired this new platform.

Liston W.:
Okay. So hundreds, that’s quite a big number of people to manage in the sales process. I’d say too many for the vendor to manage on their own.

Ariel Yoffie:
Francis Barrera from MadKudu has this great analogy, find the Frodo and the Gandalf, if you know Lord of the Rings.

Liston W.:
Yes. I’ve actually, he shared this analogy with me when we recorded and I now use that in my sales training. So yes, I’m very familiar with it.

Ariel Yoffie:
Yeah, so I was the Frodo in this situation. And that’s why I have that blog post. It’s like I am on your side, the vendor, and I’m not here to catch you in a lie or point out your gotchas. I’m here to evaluate and partnership with you because we’re about to embark on a longterm partnership where the salesperson is the Sam or the Gollum, they chose.

Liston W.:
Hopefully not the Gollum, right?

Ariel Yoffie:
Yeah, exactly.

Liston W.:
In addition to products, did you ever engage with services vendors like consultants or professional services?

Ariel Yoffie:
Oh, yeah.

Liston W.:
Was that buying process different in any way?

Ariel Yoffie:
In my case, not terribly different. In the sense of we still had a requirement list. So the two times that we got services for my particular scope of the stack were around, no, three times. Two of them are just offered to us by the vendor. They didn’t ask us for any more money, they just gave it to us, which I, now in retrospect, think is very interesting. And then this new vendor, they refer to us, which actually is not unlike where Segment, our customer data platform, would refer us to other vendors and products. Which is similar to how we would bring on consultants. Although, for the most part, actually for services, we would bring in internal people as well. So we would hire internal consultants and then essentially do a proof of concept with them and then either bring them into the team or let them go back into the wild. So those are the three options.

Liston W.:
Yeah. Okay. Now, I’m curious about the RFP process. Have you ever had a vendor who refused to participate in the RFP process?

Ariel Yoffie:
We had some who tried.

Liston W.:
Tell me about that.

Ariel Yoffie:
I think there’s a big difference between post-sales and pre-sales RFP processes. They wanted to apply this role in post-sales, which is my paper, my rules. So they tried to take the list that I had given them and then redefine or clarify each of the criteria. And so I spent, it felt like three hours on the phone, in a very expensive meeting, walking through my list so that they create their own list. And essentially what ended up happening is they walked away because they were like, this is too much. We are not ready for this level of endurance. Like I said before. Really that’s all it is. Do you have integrity? Do you have the endurance to work through the IBM procurement and legal processes and then all of the post-sales?

Liston W.:
It’s interesting though because I think that what is true is, so let’s take analytics as a category, right? So whether I’m a service provider in analytics or I’m a product provider in analytics, it’s a pretty commoditized market, right? If I don’t choose one vendor, there’s probably another one who had come close enough to the requirements I need. Now, I do believe though, if I was selling something that wasn’t so commoditized, I would have a little bit more leverage to not participate in the RFP process.

Liston W.:
From your perspective, was it a total deal breaker like you would never do business with someone who wanted, for instance, one thing they could say is, “Look, we don’t do RFP processes. Here’s why, it’s extremely expensive for us. It’s extremely expensive for you. Here’s how we would proceed with you. Are you interested?” Would you always say no to that question?

Ariel Yoffie:
It really depends on how high pressured the need is and sort of how many vendors we’re evaluating. RFP is really just a way for us to quickly be able to compare, like you said, a commoditized market, in an objective way. That’s how I see it. I know RFPs came from another place in order to prevent things like nepotism and various other prejudices, but as a person who tries to have as little prejudice as possible, it was mostly about being quantitative in evaluations that tend to be very subjective and also like narrowing the field to get to the proof of concept.

Ariel Yoffie:
The thing that I always insisted on is I never bought without a proof of concept. So if you were unwilling to do a proof of concept, we would walk away. If you were unwilling to do an RFP, that’s like whatever. We’ll move on to the next round. We’ll just start a proof of concept. If you’re not willing to do one for free, then it’s on you to go through the IBM procurement process. And if we don’t have budget, then you can just walk away.

Liston W.:
Interesting. You’re playing hardball, I see. So now that you’re on the other side of the table, right? You’re now selling a product or you’re a product manager at a company and you’re trying to sell to large companies. I’m wondering, are there any lessons that you told vendors in your experience at IBM in when you’re sort of putting out the word of how to do business with IBM that you don’t want to apply to yourself now that you’re on the other side of the table?

Ariel Yoffie:
Absolutely. So I’m in the product management part of our startup, so there are basically two things that are super important to me. One is having a direct relationship with customers. I hated when there was this bait and switch where salespeople would offer as a carrot talking to the product management team and then after the contract gets signed, I only see the product manager, Head of Product for a 30 minute meeting that they’re 15 minutes late too, and then I never hear from them again.

Ariel Yoffie:
So I feel like I’ve lost my voice. As a product person, I make sure that whatever relationships I initiate with customers in pre-sales, I follow through in post-sales, connecting with them in conferences when we’re both there in person, following up with their CSM and offering to join their QBR and review the roadmap. The other thing would be companies would do this, and I work on this all the time with the company now, promising things in exchange for the contract to get signed and giving a date that we cannot meet.

Liston W.:
You mean you don’t advocate lying?

Ariel Yoffie:
I do not advocate lying.

Liston W.:
Okay. Shocking.

Ariel Yoffie:
I don’t know what actually happened, but we had a salesperson who gave us specific dates that for multiple features that we had requested in the pre-sales process. And those dates came and went and I forwarded it to our next level of representative from that company and a month later he left. It is so bad as a practice and by the way we turned from that company, we no longer work with that vendor anymore because of that horrible experience. And so I do my best to, if I give an estimate as a product manager representing the engineering team, I never give a specific day unless I know for sure that we will have met it a month in advance. And even then I usually give 99.999% of the time I give a quarter, we will make it by this quarter and usually that’s a quarter after when I think it’s going to be done.

Liston W.:
Right. Yes. Always good to pleasantly surprise rather than disappoint

Ariel Yoffie:
Under promise over deliver.

Liston W.:
That’s right.

Ariel Yoffie:
Yeah.

Liston W.:
All right, well thank you so much for everything you’ve shared. This has been immensely valuable to me and even if the person listening to this has gotten nothing out of it, who cares because I got something out of it. Ariel, I know you’re in a role now with Iterable, and I’m wondering if anybody listening to this wanted to follow up with you, learn more about you, what should they do?

Ariel Yoffie:
Definitely reach out on LinkedIn with a message about how you heard this podcast or at the blog post or follow me on Twitter.

Liston W.:
All right, great, and so both your LinkedIn handle and Twitter are linked in the show notes. Dear listener, if you want those, you can just go to the show notes right now. Click there and it’ll send you to the right place. Ariel, thank you so much for being here.

Ariel Yoffie:
Thank you. Have a good one.

Liston W.:
That’s it for this first episode in the Buyer’s Insights series. In next week’s episode, I’ll be talking to someone who is single handedly responsible for the way 6,000 plus employees learn. If you aren’t already subscribed to this podcast, please do so by clicking the subscribe button. You can also get notified of all podcast episodes with some behind the scenes info as well as other exclusive sales content I put out by signing up for the newsletter @servedontsell.com/newsletter.

Liston W.:
It’s totally free. It’s linked in the show notes. It is there for you right now, my friend. And finally, thanks to everybody who makes this podcast possible. We’re produced by Tess Malijenovsky . Juan Perez is our editor. And Mary Anne Nokum is our show assistant. Our show theme and add music are produced by me, believe it or not, Liston Witherill. And show music is by Logan Nicholson at Music For Makers. Thanks so much for listening. I’m Liston Witherill, of Serve Don’t Sell, and I hope you have a fantastic day.

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