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Anybody Home? How Do Insurance CIOs Deal with Vendors

Larry Fortin | January 12, 2016

Having been a consultant and a CIO, I often get asked by vendor sales representatives, “What makes you open to a call, or to respond to an email from a vendor?” A great question and I decided to give it some thought, so I polled several industry CIOs and vice presidents of IT for their insight.  The responses were varied, but had consistent themes on what works and what doesn’t work.

Like many jobs today, managing an IT department is often hectic with several requests coming at you from across the company including employees, corporate leadership, business partners (vendors), the boss, and the board of directors.  Unfortunately, that leaves little time to answer the phone or respond to an email unless it is from one of the groups mentioned above. Most of the time I don’t respond to vendor request for several reasons mentioned below, however there are times that I will.

Let me start by reviewing what doesn’t work. Several of the individuals polled repeatedly stated that a constant barrage of email and voicemail from an organization will not work. “Especially after I’ve indicated I don’t currently need your services,” states Steve Fabian, the CIO of Harford Mutual. “I would think a smart organization would rather put their energy into prospecting organizations that might have a need, versus a continued effort with an organization that has clearly stated there isn’t a need.” 

Another sure way to lose any chance of talking with me is to berate me because I didn’t call you back or respond to your email. I’m in my early fifty’s and being scolded by anyone will usually put me in a bad mood. At those moments, you should be glad I don’t have the time to reply or return your call.

I’m not sure vendors realize how many calls and emails the head of an IT department gets within any given week, so I decided to count. For a small mutual insurance company in central Pennsylvania, I received 143 emails and 52 phone calls in a single week. Multiply that by the 52 weeks in a year and it would be a full time job just answering the phone and replying to emails.  One of my industry colleagues, who wished to remain anonymous, states “I will probably sound a lot like a crotchety old CIO. Seriously, I feel like I am constantly dodging vendors (by phone and email).” 

Another sure way to way to have your call ignored and deleted is when “the call is obviously a canned message, read from a script and I can picture the individual hanging up and speed dialing the next number,” says Robert McCloud from Union Mutual of Vermont. McCloud states that in this situation he may return the call, but only to ask the vendor to not call him back.

Another CIO, who would like to remain anonymous, says, “I really, really hate it when a vendor says, ‘You downloaded this whitepaper and we would like to discuss your interest in the topic’ or, ‘I met you at the xyz conference and you asked me to call you,’ when I’ve never been to that conference.”  A comment that I received in multiple responses is some sales people lie to the CIOs assistant to get on the calendar by telling the assistant they are following up on the CIOs call or request for information. This is a sure way to not receive a call back.

And before I move to the “what to do” category, a couple of other notable quotes:

  • “I’m with an insurance company, what you did for Wal-Mart will not help me”
  • “I’m sure your boss is esteemed, but I can’t drop everything to meet with him next week”
  • “We don’t sell worker’s compensation, please let me go”
  • “I talked with my CEO, he didn’t suggest I speak with you”
  • “We just replaced our core systems, and if you really did the research you stated you would know that”

So, moving on to focus on what you can do to get our attention. The number one consistent theme that 90 percent of the individuals I polled told me works is: They know what my company does; they have done their research and taken the time to understand what my needs might be.

About two years ago, even though I didn’t have a need, I took a meeting with an ISP simply because of how they approached me. I received an email from them that stated, “I know you are a CIO within an insurance company and likely share the concern captured in a short video.” 

It got my attention; it was different. The video started with a voice stating, “We know you are a smaller insurance company, but you probably have the same concerns as your biggest competitors that if your internet connectivity goes down, you will not be able to service your agents.” 

What a breath of fresh air. This was a big company, but had clearly taken the time to understand what my world is all about. This is supported by another CIO’s response: “I prefer email that really tells me something about the product/service being offered with links to get to more information. I especially like videos which are long enough to intrigue me, but don’t require much time commitment. I’d say 3-8 minutes is about right.”

I’m not sure everyone needs to go to the length the ISP did, but it is clear that taking the time to really understand the business I am in is critical. Fabian says, “I am more inclined to respond to email if they appear to be more specific to me and Harford Mutual. If they have indicated that they know Harford Mutual's business or projects I have currently underway, their odds for getting a response are better. I try to reply to all communication—positive or negative—that shows some initiative for finding information appropriate to us.”

Greg from another insurance carrier writes: “For example, I have had vendors talk a product up to me only to find that it is intended for an agency or broker market, and they never realize their mistake. This example tells me that vendors aren’t taking the time to really understand my needs, and because they haven’t done their homework I can’t honestly believe the value proposition they’re selling me.”

Of course, timing has a lot to do with taking a call. If I’m working with business leaders to define, let’s say, a component of business intelligence software, and a vendor calls selling a business intelligence product, I will likely have a conversation with them. If I find they don’t have an insurance carrier customer base, I will keep looking, but if they have a carrier customer base, they will get on a list that would be looked at as the vendor selection process progresses.

Other reasons why we will take a call is if someone I know and respect in the industry sends a note and says, “I’m using xyz vendor and things are going well. If you have a need, you might want to look at them.” 

Hannah, an IT manager with a carrier, says “I like to talk or work with someone who I can trust. If a vendor makes a phone call to me and tells me he is referred by someone I know, such as a former colleague or a coworker, he would gain my trust right away. In that case I will listen to the caller and continue the conversation.” 

Another CIO agrees: “A referral from a colleague (if I hear from the colleague first, not the vendor) usually works.”

In summary, if you are looking to talk with a CIO or a VP of IT, please take the time to understand who we are and what our pain points might be. Clearly state your value proposition and maybe follow up with an email or voicemail quarterly. Even if I don’t reply, I will keep you in the back of my mind for when I do need your services. 

Lawrence Fortin is CIO of Millers Mutual Group in Harrisburg, Pa.

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