Assume the C Level: Become an Outsourced CIO

Karl Palachuk

One of the best habits you can acquire is holding "roadmap" meetings with your clients. With very small clients, this is a recommendation; for larger clients it should be a requirement.

A roadmap meeting is a planning meeting with your client to talk about where they’re going with technology. It is not a sales meeting, and you should work hard to make sure your clients don’t see it as one. You will get a certain amount of additional work out of most roadmap meetings, but sales really isn’t the focus.

Planning-MeetingsWhen a client gets to the point where they have more than one layer of management, roadmap meetings become critical. With very small clients (1-25 users), the owner is usually the only real level of management. There might be people running departments, but they normally have to have every decision approved by the owner.

As businesses grow, there’s a point at which the owner simply cannot be involved in every decision. So delegation takes place. Someone has authority around human resources. Someone has authority around bookkeeping. The same might be true for service delivery, product development, and other departments.

As these “departments” evolve, they each spend money. Some of that money is spent on information technology. Since you’re the person they rely on for technology, chances are very good that they all rely on you to look after their best interests as they spend money.

Whether or not you’ve sold yourself as the outsourced CIO (chief information officer), you are the CIO by default. Your role includes guiding the client through the world of technology. After all, the client knows some things about technology, and they think they know even more. But the client engaged you specifically because they recognize the limits of their knowledge.

Super-PowersI think we’ve all had the experience where something goes wrong and the client turns to us and says “I depend on you to take care of these things. What happened?” What they don’t want to hear you say is that you didn’t think they wanted [something] or that you were trying to save them money.

When things go bad, the willingness to spend money goes way up. So even though the client might be reluctant to spend money in general, they are very willing to spend money when something’s gone wrong and you’re telling them that a little more money would have avoided the issue.

There are two key lessons to learn from this.

First: Do not have both sides of the conversation. If you really believe that spending money on something is in the client’s best interest, then you need to say so and let them actually say yes or no. You’ll be surprised how many times you hear yes when you thought you’d hear no.

Second: Get in the habit of talking about future expenses. Literally start talking about the next server on the day you install the new server. Let them know that it won’t last forever and you’re resetting the clock for 36 months from today. Talk about what happens when the BDR is up for renewal, when the laptop starts to have issues, when the phone system gets old.

These conversations can be very casual – but that’s not enough. You cannot assume that the client has given their blessing to a plan based on a series of disconnected hallway comments. No. At some point, you need to sit them down and actually discuss where their technology is going and how you’ll get there.

Sometimes the “plans” you have in your head will cost the client money. Sometimes they’ll save the client money. Sometimes they’ll just move expenses from capital expenditures to operating expenditures.

Find out what you don’t know

People are people. Which is to say: Your clients are just normal people, leading mostly normal lives. You can know all kinds of details about their business, but you might not know anything about what’s going on in their personal lives. And what happens in their personal lives affects their business.

You can’t really put together a questionnaire that asks

  • When do you plan to retire?
  • Are you expecting any grand children?
  • Is your spouse healthy?
  • How are your stock investments doing?
  • Will you be selling the business any time soon?
  • Are you planning to move to Florida six months out of the year and leave the business to your idiot cousin Homer?

You can’t ask these questions, but you CAN tease them out of a longer conversation about the long-term planning of the company. On top of all that, there are just as many things that you don’t know about the business itself. Even if you visit the client a lot, you may not know their profitability, the changing trends in their industry, whether they are tight on money or flush, etc.

Show your client what you DO know

There is one important thing you DO know – and you should make sure your client knows: Your job is to help them make the smartest long-term investment in technology. Your job is to actually use technology for strategic purposes. Every recommendation you make should fit into their long-term plans. Every recommendation you make should help the client make money, save money, or achieve a strategic advantage.

When you sit down at the big table with the client, he’s going to ask you to justify expenses. This is particularly true in larger clients. Everyone – every department – has to justify their spending. As you assume the role of CIO you also assume the role of looking after their finances.

One of my favorite quotes from Coleman Cox is: “An expense account offers you the best opportunity to convince your employer you are Economical, Honest and Truthful.” The same goes for being the outsourced CIO.

Whether officially given to you or not, assume the role of CIO and behave accordingly. Act as if your job depends on spending the client’s money wisely, because it does. Give the same advice you would like if you owned the company. At the end of the day, only two people are responsible for making sure that the company uses its technology budget wisely: You and the owner.

When you behave this way, you will earn a place at the big table. And when you come in with a proposal to spend money on a new storage array or a desktop refresh, you’ll be taken seriously because you’ll have a track record of being part of the team.

Invest in the best tools, the best hardware, the best software, and the best services. And you’re bound to find yourself involved at a much higher level across the board.

Do you have any thoughts about becoming an Outsourced CIO? We'd love to hear them! Please feel free to leave a comment below!