Public CIOs: Prepared VARs Will Win More Stimulus Deals

The three panelists agreed that too many VARs suffer from how-can-I-help-you-itis, an affliction in which solution providers think government CIOs have all kinds of time to explain their IT problems. News flash: They don't.

"If you approach a state or local government [agency] or a school district and say 'How can I help you' you've lost them right there," said Liza Lowery Massey, a former CIO for the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and now a consultant to state and local governments.

"Time is a more scarce commodity than money for government employees. If you come at them with questions like that you're going to get off on the wrong foot," she added.

Pitching government agencies on stimulus opportunities should not be different than pitching them on any other IT project, said Lowery Massey. Like any other project, solution providers should do their homework regarding what government agencies may need regarding stimulus opportunities.

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"Go online and see the [agency's] budget, their strategic plan, their priorities before you approach them so you're somewhat knowledgeable," she said. "Spend some time to figure out how you can help them. Keep in mind that it is somewhat of a long sales cycle, even with stimulus dollars. You're not a used-car salesman."

Having a structured process in place will shorten the time spent on the pitch itself, Lowery Massey added. Make sure you know who the right person to approach is, she said. In some cases, it may not be the CIO.

"Get relationships going on multiple levels. I always laugh when people want to go over my managers to get to me when I rely on managers to tell me what to buy. I had final approval, not beginning approval of getting anything bought," Lowery Massey said.

Dr. Melodie Mayberry-Stewart, CIO for the State of New York, agreed that VARs need to understand who their customer is and what they're trying to achieve.

"I suggest you invest in reading through the [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act]," Mayberry-Stewart told the crowd of 100 government solution providers at XGI. "We have a plan for 2010. We have other strategy documents. Do your research."

Mayberry-Stewart estimated that she's had 250 meetings with vendors and VARs over the past two years and those companies that say, "Here's what you want to get done, here's what we can do and here's how you will be successful," are the ones that win deals, she said.

"The worst thing I hear is, 'How can you help me,'" she said. "It's important to come in with a plan. You're going to get about 20 minutes and within the first five minutes, the impression has been made."

To make that first good impression, VARs should help government agencies integrate the immediate stimulus opportunities into longer-term strategies, Mayberry-Stewart said.

"We know [ARRA] won't solve all the problems. It's seed money. The goal is to have it spent, but there is the opportunity to accelerate achieving those [long-term] goals too," she said.

Eric Swanson, director of the Center for Shared Solutions and Technology Partnerships for the state of Michigan, said that he had an integrator take a unique approach and come to him with a grant opportunity. The VAR had done all the background work and offered to help his agency write the application. With the VAR's help, the agency got $2.8 million in funding and the VAR got a loyal customer.

"That's what it's going to take to get through some of these things," Swanson said.

Successful partnerships can be built with solution providers who find resources that track grant opportunities, even if it's for small projects, Swanson said.

Solution providers who are -- like government employees -- time-pressed could do well to strike relationships with universities, business groups or chambers of commerce, whch have access to research regarding IT pain points among government agencies and what stimulus funding might be available, Mayberry-Stewart said.

VARs will stand a better chance of striking relationships if they're armed with the right tools, she said. "We want you to be successful. It makes it competitive and gives us choice," she added.