A Solution to the Deluge of Unsolicited Requests

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IT leaders are inundated with unsolicited commercial emails and phone calls. How can we balance our need to learn about new IT products and services with the incredible amount of time it takes to wade through this deluge of unsolicited requests?

A Solution to the Deluge of Unsolicited Requests
Credit: iQoncept / Shutterstock © 2018

One of the things that I love about working in information technology in higher education is the camaraderie and collegiality among my peers. Gather a group of CIOs in one place, and you are all but guaranteed that the conversation will be lively and will cover a wide range of topics of mutual interest. While most of those conversations will be informative and inspirational, they can also be sympathetic and cathartic. One of the topics that quickly leads to sympathy and catharsis is the deluge of unsolicited commercial email (UCE) and other requests that we all receive.

The Dilemma

On a typical day, well over 90 percent of the email messages that I receive are from vendors trying to get my attention and seek my business. When you consider that I receive more than 100 email messages a day, those vendor solicitations really add up. And those solicitations don't come only by email: I receive dozens of telephone calls a day from vendors who want to talk to me about their products or services, and I receive unsolicited meeting requests on my calendar. More and more, vendors are resorting to unscrupulous means of getting my attention, including (1) spoofing the caller ID so that it displays either a "0" or a four-digit number in the hopes of tricking me into thinking it's a campus call (that doesn't work) and (2) lying to my assistant by saying that they are returning a call (my assistant knows better). And then there are those vendors who will say things like, "I see that you haven't been returning my email (or phone calls), so this will be the last contact." Yet they then proceed to send such messages multiple times (and here I thought the first message was a promise that they would stop).

Judging from the recent discussion on the EDUCAUSE CIO Community Group, I am certainly not alone in being deluged with UCE. Suggestions for what to do about it run the gamut but often focus on simply deleting the messages and moving on to other, more productive uses of our time. I think, however, that deleting UCE would actually do me, and my college, a disservice. While I am well aware of the major vendors in a variety of markets that serve higher education, I am not always aware of newer vendors, or existing vendors with solutions to new needs, or vendors who are meeting a need that I didn't even know existed. So the question for me is: How can I balance my need to learn about new things with the incredible amount of time it takes to wade through mountains of UCE and other unsolicited requests?

A few years back, I hit on a solution to this dilemma that has served me well and, I believe, has served many vendors well. In fact, a number of the vendors who have used my solution have told me that they find it fair and reasonable, as well as respectful of both my time and theirs. It has also served to locate those vendors who truly take an interest in me and my institution, separating them from vendors who are just looking to plaster a wide swath of schools with UCE in the hope that something will stick.

A Solution

If a vendor contacts me or my assistant and shows that they have taken at least a little time to get to know me or my institution (vendors, here's a hint: it helps when you at least get the name of my institution and my name spelled correctly), we direct them to a "Vendor Relations" web page where they can request a meeting with me. On that page, the vendors will find a link to a form that asks them to provide some information, including

  • contact information for the company, the person completing the form, and the person who wants to talk with me;
  • specific information about the product(s) and/or service(s) that they want to discuss;
  • whether or not the college has ever done business with their company and whether or not they have ever spoken with me; and
  • what time of day they prefer to meet and whether they want to meet in person, online, or by phone.

We estimate that fewer than 10 percent of the vendors who are referred to the form actually take the time to fill it out. That tells me a lot about a company. Here we have created a way to set up a meeting with the CIO, yet it isn't worth the time for the sales team to fill out a simple form? Trust me: it is very unlikely that I will take a call in the future from a company whose employees couldn't be bothered with completing a short meeting-request form.

We schedule two to three half-days each month for meetings with the vendors who have filled out the form. Each vendor is given 25 minutes to let me know why they are calling and why I should be interested in what they have to offer. It's like an episode of Shark Tank: each of the vendors is pitching me about a product in the hopes that it will be of interest to me and my institution. I can quickly figure out which vendors have taken this seriously and have done their homework. For example, we publish our technology plan each year, yet only a handful of vendors will have taken the time to read it.

In addition, many of the people I meet with were told (by their colleague who scheduled the meeting) that I am the one who requested the meeting, which is untrue. Those conversations typically start with the salespeople saying to me: "Tell us why you are interested in our product." I then have the unfortunate duty of telling them that this is not a case of my having a need in search of a solution but, rather, is a case of my having received a cold call from their company about a solution in search of a need. Those situations often provide vendors with valuable insight into their own solicitation practices and have led to a number of interesting conversations.

I have been surprised to discover that around 10–20 percent of these meetings have led to follow-up meetings. Those second meetings have been about products or services that we have already started to explore (kudos to the vendors who read our technology plan) or that present new and exciting products or services that could be of value to the college (kudos to vendors who look at our website). In fact, I would estimate that we have continued relationships with about 10 percent of those I meet with in this way. That's not a bad return on investment of time, mine and the vendors'. All of the vendors I have met with using this strategy have thanked me for the time and courtesy. They've told me that this is a unique approach to responding to their solicitations—one that they wish other potential clients would take.

While this solution works for me, I am sure others have good strategies also. If you are a colleague who has tried something that serves you well, or if you are a vendor who has experienced a helpful approach, please add a comment below or drop me a note ([email protected]). I would like to collect your solutions so that I can share them in a future article. After all, those of us in higher education information technology have a need to learn about new technologies, and vendors have a desire to put those new technologies in front of us. If we can collectively find a better way of bringing CIOs and vendors together, we can all stop wasting our energy on UCE and other unsolicited requests and instead spend our time finding and implementing the best IT products and services for our institutions.

Bret Ingerman is the Vice President for Information Technology at Tallahassee Community College (TCC) in Tallahassee, Florida. He is the 2018 Editor of the Connections column for EDUCAUSE Review.

© 2018 Bret Ingerman. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.