Selling BI by the Slice

Mid-market shoppers at the recent Sage Summit Customer Conference wanted to try BI by the slice, and many didn't even call it BI. Vendors' pitches kept that in mind.

Executives at mid-size organizations may wake up in the morning in need of fewer problems, better help, or more sleep. It's a rare one who awakes to declare, "We need business intelligence!"

Instead, BI usually trickles upward. The CEO's subordinates bring BI into the mid-size organization bit by bit in tactical upgrades. At least that's what I found in my two days of selling. In mid-November, I helped a client sell a business intelligence-related tool at the Sage Summit Customer Conference in Denver.

"When people ask for BI," said Joni Girardi, CEO of DataSelf, "they don't know exactly what they need." It's like learning golf, he said: beginning players use just one or two clubs.

Typical mid-market executives started the business in garages, Girardi told me. They haven't had time to raise their heads above the day-to-day work. BI has a hard time cutting through the noise to reach them. "The CEO has hundreds of people telling him, 'I can help you,'" said Girardi. With little ROI to show for past "solutions," anyone would be wary.

Mostly, the department heads and IT workers at Sage Summit just wanted to make their own jobs easier. They shopped for better or easier reporting, forecasting, sales-commissions, budgeting, and other functions.

Several attendees I talked to came from IT and wanted to make reporting easy enough for business people to handle alone. "I do perpetual report writing," said Richard Morgan-Fine of EZ Way, a maker of patient-handling equipment. "I have 100 reports on my desk to be done. If I can take 80 of them away, the investment is worth it because then I can do other jobs that save money."

Others included a shopper from Pumps and Pressure in Red Deer, Alberta who simply wanted better inventory reports; Beverly Griffen of Hatch, which places computers in preschools, was interested in "all of BI" but had to implement it in stages. A pharmaceutical-management company that was integrating data from a variety of platforms told me they wanted "flexible" reporting.

Most vendors geared their sales to a one-solution-at-a-time approach. "We try to nail just one problem," said ClickBase regional sales manager Catherine Welpton. With the most painful problem solved, the tool can hit other pain points.

Often, these buyers shop without knowing what to ask for. KnowledgeSync vice president of sales and marketing Don Farber recalls a typical conversation. Farber told a prospect that he may need alerts software, a KnowledgeSync product that automatically issues an e-mail, text message, or other notification when a given event occurs. The prospect replied, "'No, I don't need alerts. I need this, this, and this,' and described alerts.'"

Farber says that to reach customers, you have to use words they understand -- such as in the way he orders a steak: "I ask for 'pink in the middle.' When the waiter asks me, 'Rare?' I say, 'I don't care what you call it, just give me a steak that's pink in the middle.'"

Trouble is, one buyer's useless jargon is another one's secret handshake. Barbara Lewis, marketing director at the on-demand analytics firm Birst, warns marketers to be careful discarding jargon when pitching to larger mid-size companies. They have IT teams who know the words.

"If you don't use all the proper, complex technical terms with them, they suspect you're a lightweight." They think your solution doesn't do what they need or, worse, that you just happened to create what they wanted but may not deliver in the future. "Since the midmarket is so large and so varied, you have to be very careful about appealing to both audiences without alienating one or the other."

Other attendees were there just to learn. Jimmy Keys lets his two brothers install sprinklers for Key Fire Protection in Jackson, Florida while he runs the office. He came to Sage Summit knowing they'll soon need better systems --for HR, payroll, and other areas -- but he wasn't sure what. He was happy just to see the possibilities.

Next thing you know, he's going to wake up one morning and say, "We need business intelligence."