Esoteric Value

“Don’t sell the steak. Sell the sizzle.” is a sales canon that dates back to The New Yorker Magazine in 1938. Elmer Wheeler is the man credited with coining it. It seems Mr. Wheeler was one of the first pioneers in persuasive selling. He was one of the first to recognize the value in presenting a customer the choice in buying one thing or another thing (something and something) instead of the choice of buying or not buying (something and nothing). He was successful. Sales teams have been trying to emulate him, and his success since.

His approach works well when dealing with an end-user customer. The person buying the steak, or getting their oil checked, or buying a malted milk (these were actual examples in the 1938 article) can readily be replaced by those purchasing Mobile Phone packages, automobiles or Television / Internet packages for their homes. It is still about buying one thing or another, not about buying or not buying. These are consumers making discretionary purchase decisions.

For the most part these are all examples of Business-to-Consumer selling opportunities. The person buying is the person using the capability being sold. It is when you start looking at the idea of Business-to-Business selling that the concept of “sizzle” can become a little more esoteric. In business, there are very few discretionary purchase decisions that get made. It is usually decided that you can use it to make money or save money, or you don’t buy it.

Businesses for the most part are financially or profit driven. I say for the most part as there are several that purport to serve the greater good, and by their designation as a “Non-Profit” organization enjoy a different tax treatment. There are also those that are regulated as to how much they are actually allowed to charge and or make as a profit. Even so, these regulated firms are also somewhat profit driven.

What they are not is “sizzle” driven.

Yes, it is true that organizations are made up of people that can be influenced by something other than profitability, but the organization as a whole, through is management structure, its purchasing process and more importantly in many instances, its stock price will not be “sizzle” driven. Being fashionable or exciting or being a market or technology leader is interesting. It may have some ephemeral effect on the organization, or how the market perceives it, but in the end, it will be the financial performance of the company that dictates how it ultimately is perceived.

If you want to stay in business, profitability will be key. It is about making money, and about how those things that the organization purchases can be used to make more of it, this quarter, this month, today.

Steve Jobs is famous for many quotes. Part of one of his more famous quotes contains the following line:

“Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do”

This is spoken like a true technology genius, especially when he is referring to a set of consumers and end-user customers that are not technology geniuses. Jobs was brilliant at anticipating consumer “wants” (as opposed to needs – no one “needs” an iPhone, or an iPod, etc.) and then putting together a product package that would then create a new market.

He identified what you would want and then created the package that you wanted it in. Like I said, he was a genius.

However, when you are working with businesses, it is somewhat different. The businesses normally require something called a “business case” (see what I did there? Business – business case? It’s important.) before they are going to spend money on anything, whether it is a new hire, an internal development, or an externally supplied product or service. It has to make business sense, or more simply put, it needs to generate more value for the business than it costs the business to do.

There is a myriad of ways to describe the generation value for a business, but I have found that they can usually be simplified down into one of two categories: Value can be created by enabling the customer to generate more revenue, or value can be generated by enabling the customer to reduce their costs. Both of which usually result in greater earnings and profits, which ultimately increases the value of the company (usually in the eyes of the shareholders or owners).

Many times, companies like to tout their future capabilities when selling to other companies. It is important to have a direction and strategy for the future when talking to customers. They too want to know where their suppliers are going and what they expect the market to need or want in the future. But there is a significant gap between the value of a business case for today, and the value of a business case for the future.

The business case of today involves products and services designed to meet defined requirements, solve existing issues and deliver present value in the form of increased sales or reduced costs. The needs exist. The products exist. And the relationship between them can be well defined. The amount spent, and the value received, either immediately or over the defined period of the business case can be calculated. It is truly the decision between buying one vendor’s solution and buying another vendor’s solution (again, the decision between buying something and buying something else).

It is when new products or capabilities are introduced ahead of or in anticipation of the business customer’s need, that the business case relationship can become somewhat esoteric.

When trying to anticipate the business customer’s future needs, the impetus is on convincing them that your specific view of the future is to correct one. They must then balance that out against their customers needs, wants and desires to see if that anticipation makes sense in the form of a business case.

Many times, there can be a general consensus among the supplier organizations about what the future state of an industry may look like, but unless that vision can be quickly converted into increased customer revenues, or reduced operating expenses, the future solution will have to wait. Most organizations can no longer afford to spend money in anticipation of what they think their customers will need or want. They would rather wait and make sure it is what they need or want.

Remember present value is always better than future value.

Part of the issue with “future” products is that they don’t necessarily translate to definable value. They are usually described as “platforms” for the future, or that they will enable “future applications”. In short, they don’t clearly define and quantify how the business customer is going to generate new revenues and how much those revenues might be, or how they are going to reduce their costs and how much those cost reductions might be. They have only half of a defined business case. The purchase or the cost half.

They do not have the benefit half of the business case defined.

Without the definition of those future applications or services or values or cost reductions it is difficult to make a case where an organization will feel comfortable spending today’s money on an undefined future value. In short, very few businesses will gamble today’s money on an undefined future value. It makes much more sense for them to actually wait on the future than to bet on the future.

As I said earlier, companies are in business primarily to bring value to their shareholders and their owners. The do this by generating earnings and profits. They do that generating greater value on products and projects that the money they spend executing them. They make more money than they spend on these ventures.

When a business is trying to sell a good or service that cannot clearly define the value that it will generate for the customer, either in the present or the future, it always makes more sense for the customer to wait on that particular buying decisions. This is the definition of deciding between buying something and not buying (buying nothing).

Regardless of the sizzle that a company may claim that accompanies their product or service, in the case of buying today based on predicted future needs and capabilities, the steak, and its relatively definable value will usually be of much more interest to the business customer. Especially when it comes time to review the value generated for the customer. And even more so when that sizzle is still just a future sizzle.

Customer Wants

Sometimes, events in the universe just conspire to align themselves in such a way that a topic to write about becomes painfully self-evident. Such is what has happened over the last little period of time for me. I was the recipient of several surveys asking me as a customer, what I wanted. I also had the opportunity to read several surveys that had asked other types of customers what they wanted. These current events brought back recollections of past events that had already conveyed this topic into such clarity some time ago for me. I am of course talking about talking to customers, and more specifically what customers want.

What customers want is usually viewed as the holy grail of business conduct. If you can figure out what they want, you can create a product or service that will satisfy their desire. You can become famous and respected as a scion of business. You can be somebody.

One of the most popular methods for finding out what customers want is through the afore mentioned surveys. Another is industry forums and workshops. Yet another is actually talking to them face to face and just asking them. As I mentioned, I have recently had the opportunity to both read about and to some extent participate in these types of customer interactions. People had gone out, identified the customers, and asked them what they wanted. And lo and behold, they told us.

We now knew what they wanted. We could design and build the future around these responses. We had the information. We had the answers. We were off and running.

Not so fast.

Long ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was once responsible for a business unit within a company. I had taken the adage to heart. I had created a users’ group so that I could talk directly to my customers and understand what they wanted as well as what was dissatisfying them. It worked great, for a while.

Most of the time the problems, issues and requests that we discussed were well known to both groups, the company as well as the users. We prioritized them, focused our abilities, and instead of trying to solve them all at once, we solved a few at a time and made measurable progress. As we took the major issues and dissatisfiers off the list, they were eventually replaced with more and more arcane topics. They were still dissatisfiers, but not on the same level as those that we had already dealt with. Soon we found ourselves starting to try and prioritize and work on the arcane as opposed to the well-defined issues.

We surveyed the customers to try and understand “what they wanted”. They were not shy. We hadn’t put any limitations on what their responses could be, so they told us what they wanted. They had gone through a prolonged period of getting many of the products and issue resolutions that they were looking for, so their expectations were high regarding what our responses would be.

The subtle change that had occurred was that we were now specifically discussing things that they wanted, where in the past we had been working on topics that needed to be worked or corrected. These were now “want” to haves, as opposed to “have” to have topics. There is a different commercial model when it comes to correcting issues or providing already committed functionalities, then there is when it comes to fulfilling customer wants and desires.

We started discussing the parameters for the commercial model associated with fulfilling their desires. We started to ask them for money in order for us to deliver what they wanted. What they wanted was so arcane, and technically complicated, they we started asking for a lot of money.

The next users group meeting came along, and naturally, this issue was a major topic of discussion. The customers were unhappy. They were dissatisfied. They were not getting what they wanted. It came time to have “the talk” with them individually, and as a user group in general.

We set up the session and cleared the agenda. We started off by making sure that we had in fact properly scoped and defined the specific desired capability that they said they wanted. We wanted to make sure that we were answering and addressing the proper topic. We had.

We then asked the question that hence forth has always accompanied any time in the future that that I have asked a customer what they wanted. We asked:

“Are you willing to pay for what you want?”

It is easy for anyone, customers included, to come up with a list of things that they want. The issue here is always two-fold: Are you willing to pay for it? And, do you have enough money to pay for it?

Usually when customers are surveyed about needs, wants, desires, there is little in the way of a perceived economic model accompanying these questions. Wants invariably well exceed available budgets and the ability to purchase these wants. The different relative costs associated with the various desires can have a significant effect on the priority with which the customer views them.

A good example would be a survey about cars. You can be asked what kind of car you would want. You may “want” an exotic super-car. They are nice cars. You may not have enough money on hand, nor the desire to re-mortgage your house in order to buy an exotic super-car. Even though you may want one, you may not be willing to pay what it costs to buy one.

Such is the issue we ran into way back when. We asked only about “wants”. Such is the issue that seems to continue to plague more recent industry survey and customer communications.

Getting back to my historical lesson, most of the customers agreed that they would be willing to pay something for their desired functionality. It is interesting to note here that I said “most”. There were some that were not. I think by now you know where I will be going with this.

I then shared what the order of magnitude estimate was for the company to develop the desired capability and explained that even though it might be contrary to common opinion, we were a “for profit” organization. The stockholders were funny that way, and sort of insisted on it. Based on the business case and the relative number of interested customers, we then shared an order of magnitude individual customer price for the desired capability, based on the assumption that all interested customers would purchase it at the estimated price.

The majority of the customers indicated that they were not interested in the capability at the estimated price. We then looked at the remaining customers and indicated that their price would go up in proportion to the number of customers that were no longer interested in purchasing the capability.

The result of the discussion was that we publicly addressed the dissatisfier and quantified to the customer what it would cost them to be satisfied, and then mutually decided that we would not develop and supply the customer desired functionality. We would instead work with them to see if there were work-arounds or other methods of addressing the desired functionality.

During the course of this interaction it became clear that what customers want is indeed an important aspect of the process of creating customer satisfaction. You have to know what they want. Many times, it is within your ability to provide it, and to provide in such a way or at such a price point that it makes sense for all involved. However, as technology has evolved, and as budgets continue to tighten, sometimes the usual economic model will not work.

In today’s business climate, any time that you are looking to have interactions with customers regarding “what they want” as a method of gaging which products to create or which strategic directions to pursue, it will probably be in everyone’s best interest to include questions regarding if  that customer would be willing to purchase that desired product or functionality, and what specifically (at lease to a rounded order of magnitude) what they would be willing to pay for it.

All customers have a list of wants and desires. If you only ask them about those wants and desires you may find yourself trying to design and build products, services and functionalities that customers may be unwilling to purchase, even though they may want them. I think the number of people that may want an exotic super-car is far greater than the number of people that are actually willing to pay what it costs to buy one. I’m pretty sure about this because as I drive around in my distinctly non-exotic super-car, I see so many others driving around in their non-exotic super-cars.

As an aside I can’t believe that so many other people actually wanted all those minivans that they are driving around in. Perhaps that will be something to analyze in a future edition.

I think that we all need to be aware of what customers want. I also think that unless we normalize these wants with information regarding which wants they are willing to pay for, and how much they might be willing to pay for each one, we can lead ourselves into some difficult business situations.