How to Be Smart When Shopping for a Sales Intelligence Solution

By Sharon Gillenwater

When it comes to sales intelligence and business “data” providers, buyer beware.

What passes as company/executive “data,” “intelligence,” and “insight” is often so out of date and inaccurate that customers have to go out to the open Web to verify absolutely everything.

Let’s think about that for a moment.

You’re paying for something that is wrong so often that you don’t trust it and feel the need to constantly re-verify it.

As a sales intelligence provider who wants to do right by our customers, that just breaks my heart.

I’m not making these claims lightly or trying to trash other vendors. But I know all of the above to be true because I have sampled many of these services. In fact, their flaws – mostly significant omissions and inaccuracies – were the reason I created my own executive profile database while doing consulting for tech companies.

Unfortunately, the sorry state of “sales intelligence” has led to the sad fact that customers have developed a very high level of tolerance for inaccurate data and have become quite cynical when it comes to sales intelligence providers.

Why is this such a problem? There are three main reasons.

  1. It is very hard to do. Companies are constantly changing – and the people who work in them are constantly moving around. Consequently, over time, the information in a sales intelligence database becomes less and less accurate. Most vendors don’t invest in adequate verification and update processes.

  2. Most providers are scraping their data. Smart use of technology can help data providers scale their products as well as automate the updating of their data. The problem? Bad/old data gets out there and all the providers scrape it up – creating more and more instances of it and making mistakes difficult to correct. Without any humans to verify it, inaccurate information gets perpetuated for years.

  3. There is more emphasis on scale than accuracy. “How many records do you have?” is often the first question we are asked about our executive profile database. While it is a valid question, no one seems to think about the fact that the number of records you have doesn’t matter when those records are wrong. Venture capitalists who back sales intelligence companies make things worse by emphasizing scale – and speed to scale – over everything else. When I was looking to raise money for Boardroom Insiders nearly 10 years ago, a VC actually snapped, “Stop talking about the quality of your data. No one cares!”

Well, I care. And YOU, the CUSTOMER, should absolutely care.

So, with this sorry state of affairs, how can customers smartly size up sales intelligence providers?

  1. Ask them how they collect information. If they are relying exclusively on technology with no human-centered editorial process, be very afraid. While some technology is necessary as part of the process, using experienced human editors and analysts to create executive profiles adds a significant layer of relevance to profiles.

  2. Ask to see samples of companies and people you know. This is the easiest way to size up a service for accuracy as well as determine if it can add value beyond what you already know.

  3. Compare “apples to apples” from different providers. Choose a company or a few executives and ask the companies you are considering to provide samples for that company/those people.

  4. Ask to pilot before signing long term. If a company is confident in its service, it will do this because it knows you are going to get so much value that you will want to buy an annual subscription. If a company has trepidation about a short-term pilot, that indicates they may have something to hide – and it’s probably their data quality.

Finally, beware anyone claiming to have a “silver bullet.” There isn’t one. Recently, one of our customers got very excited about a sales intelligence vendor that has raised tens of millions in venture capital. She recommended that we consider using it as a source for our executive profiles.

I had been following the company for several years and there seemed to be no “there” there; but, since our customer asked, I decided to give it another look. Following my own instructions above, I searched for a few executives I knew – and every single profile that came up was either woefully incomplete or completely inaccurate. This was even the case for some very high-ranking executives, such as my friend (let’s call her “Doris”) who is an SVP at Wells Fargo. Not only did the company not have Doris at Wells Fargo (where she has been since 2012), it didn’t have any of her previous jobs – going all the way back to 1990! Other searches yielded similar results.

While I won’t call out this vendor by name, this particular example is egregious. The thought that my customer might be duped into paying for such inaccurate information – that was so easy to get accurately (and for free) on LinkedIn and elsewhere – really made me angry. When companies in our industry do this it hurts the industry by making us ALL look suspect.

If you buy sales intelligence, please beware and do your due diligence. You don’t want to waste your money. And you do want to have access to deep, relevant executive insights that will help you and your team proceed with potential and current customers with confidence.

Sharon Gillenwater is the founder and editor-in-chief of Boardroom Insiders, which maintains an extensive database of the most in-depth executive profiles on the market – from Fortune 500 companies to independent nonprofits – to help sales and marketing professionals build deeper relationships and close more deals with clients. Gillenwater is a long-time marketing consultant with expertise in marketing strategy, account-based marketing, and CXO engagement programs.