Steve Machesney recently had the opportunity to speak with Sean Higginbotham, IT Director for Cascade County, Montana, on how technology vendors can build trusted, long-lasting relationships with IT decision makers.

Know Priorities and Constraints

As Sean is quick to note “When you’ve seen one county – you’ve seen one county.” Vendors have to put the work in to understand their prospects priorities and constraints up front.

For Sean, top priorities currently include strengthening cybersecurity, hiring and retaining competent staff, and modernizing outdated processes. However, he has to balance those goals with the realities of Cascade County’s modest population of around 86,000 residents and limited financial resources.

Vendors hoping to work successfully with smaller local governments must understand those realities upfront. Coming in with unrealistic expectations or overpromising on capabilities can damage credibility. Being transparent about what solutions can realistically achieve given budget and resource constraints is crucial. Vendors should consider tailoring solutions for smaller communities because they can play a big part in establishing a stable revenue stream.

And what vendors must never do is insult the IT staff’s intelligence. They’re smart, capable people coming to you for help. Respect them.

Why Sean is wary of “free” funding for projects.

Get Attention the Right Way

According to Sean, the best ways for vendors to get his attention are through relevant use cases published in industry media, peer recommendations, and tailored product demos based on his specific needs. Cold calls and repetitive spam emails are not effective.

Taking time to learn about the county’s strategic goals, pain points, and desired outcomes demonstrates a commitment to building a partnership, not just making a quick sale. Tailoring demos and discussions accordingly establishes credibility and shows an understanding of the customer’s world.

Sean is happy to participate in true discovery calls but checks out when it becomes clear that reps are only trying to establish budget, authority, need, and timing.

And when it comes to pilot projects make sure they “do no harm.” Forcing a prospect to take weeks to extract your solution from their systems leaves a bad taste in their mouths.

Sean loves a good discovery call.

Lead with Pricing and Terms

Due to chronic budget limitations, upfront pricing and contract terms are often make-or-break factors for Sean. Vendors should be ready to discuss costs early in the process before wasting their time and the their prospect’s time. And vendors should proactively ask about make-or-brake terms early on. For example Cascade County requires technology vendors to take out an insurance policies to cover the costs of security vulnerabilities in their software.

This need for flexibility often gives smaller vendors an advantage over their bigger and rigid competitors.

Take Time to Learn Processes

Every local government entity has its own unique structures, rules, and stakeholder dynamics around purchasing and implementing technology solutions. Too often, outside vendors underestimate the time needed to navigate those processes and push for faster deal cycles.

Vendors who take the time to understand procurement procedures, budget timing, approval flows, and other internal requirements can gain a tremendous advantage. That understanding enables them to provide valuable guidance on successfully moving projects forward, building crucial trust and credibility along the way.

It’s critical to understand how decisions are going to be made. How? Ask! Leaders in purchasing and IT are happy to answer your questions because it smooths the way.

Focus on Long-Term Relationships

According to Sean, the vendors he values most take a relationship-driven approach focused on truly understanding his organization and building connections with people at multiple levels. With sales rep turnover being common in the industry, consistency in contact relationships is hugely beneficial.

Empathy for government staff who have experienced churn and now hesitate to invest in new relationships is also important. Vendors who demonstrate patience and long-term commitment can overcome such hurdles to become trusted advisors over time.

Building trust involves giving advice that might not pay off immediately.

Keys to Success

Building strong relationships with IT leaders in smaller local governments requires understanding their realities, priorities, and constraints. It takes time to craft enduring partnerships built on trust. Vendors who invest in learning customers’ needs, challenges, and processes will find opportunities to become go-to solutions providers for the long haul.

With sound strategies based on customer perspective, vendors can tap into this important but sometimes overlooked market segment to drive sustainable mutual success.