All posts by Steve

Selling Products vs. Selling Services

In case some of you are not fully aware, products and services are different. They can be tightly integrated. They can be mutually dependent. But they are entirely different. This can cause businesses that provide and sell both products and services significant issues.

Customers usually like to have a single point of contact with their vendors and suppliers. If the customer is large enough, this point might actually be a coordination point for the vendor’s sales team, as opposed to a single sales point. This creates an issue for the vendors in that more and more in the age of increased specialization, they are they are driven by customers, and hence driving their sales teams to try and sell both products and services.

I’ll start with the easy one first: Products. Just about everyone knows what a product is. Now believe it or not, a quick Googling of the word “product” has delivered two entirely different definitions:

product; plural noun: products
1. an article or substance that is manufactured or refined for sale.
2. a quantity obtained by multiplying quantities together, or from an analogous algebraic operation. https://www.google.com/search?source=hp&ei=c7loWtCWIYT5_AaP04-ICg&q=product&oq=product&gs_l=psy-ab.3..0i131k1j0j0i131k1l3j0l5.553.1679.0.3106.7.6.0.0.0.0.178.623.0j4.4.0….0…1.1.64.psy-ab..3.4.621….0.Jn1vc8zzN28

All the math nerds out there need to settle down. We are going to concern ourselves with the first definition of a product.

For purposes of this discussion I am going to look at products as a tangible item of substance manufactured for sale. (In an increasingly software driven world this idea can be stretched to software in as much as software is now also generally recognized as a manufactured or refined product as well.) A product is something that is made. People can usually touch it. It physically exists. Because it is a tangible good, a value can more easily be assigned to it. If a value can be assigned to it, it can be sold.

This is one of the main reasons that products are generally viewed as being easier to sell than services. There is a physical, tangible good associated in the exchange for money. A customer gives the vendor money and in return the vendor provides the customer with a tangible good or asset that they can point to when anyone questions them about the exchange.

A good example of a product for money exchange would be the purchase of a car. You know the car you want, and you know the amount you are willing to pay. If the vendor can meet those requirements, you will make the deal. You can look at the various attributes and features associated with the car and ascribe incremental (or decremental) value to them.

Things like leather seats and nice stereo systems are quantifiable attributes to that car. Dents and scratches are detraction’s from the value of that car.

The car is a tangible good that can be examined, with its value understood and hopefully agreed on.

Now look let’s look at services.

Another quick Googling of “services” takes us to Wikipedia, another source of simple and basic definitions. Wikipedia states:

In economics, a service is a transaction in which no physical goods are transferred from the seller to the buyer. The benefits of such a service are held to be demonstrated by the buyer’s willingness to make the exchange. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Service_(economics)

A service transaction is one where no physical goods are exchanged. There is nothing tangible that is being bought or sold.

Now I am sure there are many that are going to jump up (and subsequently down) and say that is not true. There are people, and time, and labor and all sorts of things that are being bought when a service is purchased.

I think you are wrong.

Do not confuse what the delivery of a service is, with what the actual purchase of the service is.

I think that the best way to illustrate what a service purchase is, is to begin with a definition of what is actually being purchased in a service purchase transaction. I would submit that a service purchase is actually:

The purchase of the expectation of an end-state situation.
(This is actually one of my own, and hence doesn’t have a citation for locating it on the web. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist there. It just means that I thought it up. I guess someone else could have thought it up as well.)

I’ll use the car example to further this idea.

Suppose you are going to take your newly purchased car to a car wash. Are you actually purchasing the labor and use of the machinery that goes into washing and cleaning your car?

I don’t really think so. I think you are purchasing the end state expectation of a clean and shiny car to drive off in. You are not overly concerned as to whether it takes ten people to wash your car quickly by hand, or whether it can be run through an automatic car washing machine as long as the same end state expectation is met.

I think this is a key point, and adds to the complexity of a service sale. Selling a service is actually trying to sell an end state solution, or position, instead of a tangible good.

Two of the biggest issues associated with the service sales model for intangible goods are, the loss of control, and the matching and the meeting of expectations of the service purchaser.

When I was younger, I was pretty protective of my car. It was one of the biggest assets I owned. I was concerned about relinquishing control of my car to someone else, even to clean it. I went to self-wash car washes, or I did it myself in my drive way. I got a great deal of pride from cleaning it. I was of the opinion that few if any could clean my car as well as I could. I was not a good candidate to be a car wash service customer.

I don’t suspect I was too different from many others with their first cars – with the possible exception of my teenage son. His car is, and remains, filthy.

I also didn’t have as much disposable income at that time, which meant that I had other priorities than paying for a car wash. Times change but the analogy continues. Some people don’t want to purchase the service associated with a car wash. They would rather do it themselves.

The second issue associated with purchasing the service associated with a car wash is the matching and meeting of expectations.

What happens if you buy the car wash, and it comes back obviously washed, but with dirt and streaks? What about hand prints on the windows? Maybe they didn’t vacuum the inside.

They have provided the service you purchased, but they did not meet your end state expectations. The service did not become tangible (in the form of a not entirely cleaned car) until after it had been delivered. Their interpretation of what a clean car was did not match your expectation of what a clean car was.

This potential for mismatched expectations is why there are contracts and lawyers. I’ll save that discussion for another day.

In the age of increased specialization, sales teams are increasingly being asked to sell tangible goods (products) which have a pre-defined end state capability, along with intangible services based on meeting the end state expectations of the customer. No one will truly know what the end state is, or if the expectations have been met until after the service has been delivered.

When viewed from this point of view it can be seen that services can be perceived by the sales team as a higher risk proposition. Products have defined specifications and features. Their functionality is usually well defined. Customers also know this. If the product operates to these specifications, there should be no question regarding customer satisfaction.

They in effect know that they will get what they pay for, before they pay for it.

This is not the case for services. Customers can get contracts. They can get vendor assurances. They can get all kinds of management commitments. But they will not know if they got what they wanted, and expected, and paid for until after the service has been delivered.

The selling of the tangible and intangible seem to require different approaches and techniques. The tangible can be compared and relatively valued versus both the current capabilities as well as the competitively offered ones. The creativity associated with the tangible application can be a differentiator.

The intangible is a little more difficult. It requires the defining of a future end state that doesn’t currently exist. Promised savings or improved efficiencies associated with a service cannot be realized until the service has already been implemented. And the fear then is that if the expectations are not met, it is already too late.

Defining and then codifying a viable end state solution will be the key to a successful services sale. How shiny is the washed car supposed to be? Are all the windows to be washed? Are best efforts to remove stains from the carpet good enough, or are you actually committing to replacing the carpets if you cannot in fact clean them appropriately.

Being able to identify the steps and milestones required to reach that end state will be required if customer expectations are going to be met, and a successful services transaction is to be completed.

And selling that kind of intangible is pretty different than selling a product.

The Nimble Process

I have read that there have been many claimed sightings of the nimble process in business these days. they usually occur in small out of the way places, and by possibly dubious sources. When the reports of these sightings first come in they are usually confused and somewhat contradictory. Sometimes the questionable sighting is just attributed to the reliability of the witness claiming to have seen it. Whenever there is an examination of the data associated with the sighting, the results are invariable inconclusive. The hunt for conclusive evidence goes on.

In short, confirming the existence of the nimble process may have become the business equivalent of trying to confirm the existence of Big Foot, the Yeti, or the Loch Ness Monster. There are plenty of people who have claimed to have seen them, but there just isn’t that much reliable evidence around to actually confirm their existence.

If we are going to look for, and discuss the nimble process, we need to start with some simple definitions. Where else but the dictionary can you go to get really good definitions:

Nimble [nim-buhl] Adjective: quick and light in movement; moving with ease; agile; active; rapid http://www.dictionary.com/browse/nimble

Process [pros-es; especially British proh-ses] Noun: a systematic series of actions directed to some end: a continuous action, operation, or series of changes taking place in a definite manner: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/process?s=t

As can quickly surmise, a nimble process is what is known in many circles as an oxymoron.

Oxymoron [ok-si-mawr-on, -mohr-] Noun: a figure of speech by which a locution produces an incongruous, seemingly self-contradictory effect, as in “cruel kindness”, “jumbo shrimp” or “to make haste slowly.”. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/oxymoron?s=ts
(I threw in the jumbo shrimp one myself, mainly because a really like it for illustrative purposes. The other two were actually in the definition.)

The primary difference between a nimble process and other oxymorons is that there are verifiable instances of the other oxymorons existing in the real world. You can in fact go to the local grocery store or food market and purchase jumbo shrimp. They are in the bin next to the merely “large shrimp”. The search for the nimble process however, continues to go on.

As noted in their definitions, nimbleness is defined as quick and light in movement, and process is defined as a systematic series of actions, and operation…in a definite manner. Businesses yearn to be able to operate with quick and light movements in a definite manner. This is the big foot / yeti / Loch Ness monster that almost every organization is searching for. The ability to define almost every conceivable option in a process, and the ability to execute on any one of them almost immediately.

Personally, I think there is a greater probability of big foot calling and holding a news conference for the purpose of confirming its own existence.

Process is the defining of specific steps and alternatives. I have written in the past about the fact that process is designed to help generate repeatable results by removing judgement as a variable in the business process. Since almost everyone in business has different types and levels of judgement, it has been identified as a variable that can somewhat be controlled by process. If you define the process steps, you inherently reduce the need for judgement. If all your steps and alternatives are thus defined, what is the use in being nimble in the execution of them?

As more and more process is implemented into the business environment the supposed need for the ability to adapt to new opportunities, or issues, should also be reduced. If this was indeed the case there would be no need for being nimble at all. You would merely continue to increment in new steps to the process until every alternative would be covered.

This is what appears to be the business goal of what happening today.

Processes grow ever bigger and more complex as people strive for that process that can be applied to every situation. Instead of focusing on solutions, focus has shifted to how the process will need to be incremented or modified so that it will generate an acceptable solution.

Nimble is normally associated with the ability to perform the most of complex movements with speed and grace. It is the ability to change and adjust spontaneously to changing issues and inputs. It is moving lightly and actively as opposed to moving passively in a prescribed manner. It is in effect the basic opposite of process.

The only way to make a process more nimble and agile, especially when it comes to issues and events that have no current response defined within the process, is to reduce the intensity of the process.

As processes become more detailed and refined they become more rigid. The more prescribed actions and directions that are contained in a process, the less agile and nimble it becomes. The more judgement that is taken out of the hands of those implementing the process the more fixed and ingrained it becomes.

Judgement, or the lack of it, is an excellent indicator of both an individual’s and organizations ability to adapt and adjust to changes in its environment. It is indicative of the search for the nimble process in that as organizations implement more processes in an effort to remove performance variations, the environment that they must operate in continues to become more variable and to change at a faster rate.

Process, via its fixed step connotation as it is implemented, reduces an organizations ability to adapt to its variable and changing environment.

Still, the search goes on.

There are an ever-growing number of television shows dedicated to the search for finding proof positive regarding bigfoot. There is the show “Finding Bigfoot”. There is “Mountain Monsters”. Heck, even the guy who used to show us how to survive in the wilderness for a week or two with nothing but a multi-tool and some dental floss has given up his show “Survivor” and is now out there looking for bigfoot.

It appears that shows about finding what has to this point proven to be unfindable are entertaining and are generating an ever-increasing following.

Like-wise it appears that there continues to be an ever-increasing drive to create the ever more nimble process by draining the requirements for judgement and flexibility from those who most need, and must utilize those attributes. What really worries me is that there are so many who are comfortable with this ceding of their judgement to the process.

As long as it is easier, and now safer, to follow the steps in a process instead of thinking, using judgement, and possibly being wrong, business risks the continued petrification (a long-term process) of their processes. If business continues to drive judgement out of its staff’s lexicon in favor of process and predictability, then business will continue to become very predictable in its inability to demonstrate any nimbleness or agility.

It’s time to change the meaning of the word “process”. Process, as it is used in business today, is used as a noun describing a fixed methodology for performing actions. It appears that if true nimbleness is desired, many of the prescribed actions need to be removed from the current “by rote” methodology, and process will need to adopt one of its other dictionary definitions:

Process verb: to integrate sensory information received so that an action or response is generated: the brain processes visual images relayed from the retina.
to subject to examination or analysis: computers process data https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/process

The idea here is to take the input associated with the situation and generate a proper response, not follow a preconceived fixed in place response associated with a “process”. Instead of having people merely follow a prescribed set of responses in a process, businesses need to require their people to be smart, examine and analyze the information and input available, process it, and then act in accordance with their resulting judgements and less rigid business guidelines, not prescriptions.

I think therein lies the direction to the nimble process.

Instead of trying to create a process that takes every possible business and market permutation into account, businesses need to scale back the rigor associated with their processes, and require more of their team members. I don’t think that thinking is a lost art in business, yet. The more people that think and exercise judgement the faster a business can respond to new threats and opportunities.

Processes need to become a little more general, and a little less specific for nimbleness to take hold. The more complex the process is, invariably the slower it is to change, be changed and react to new and different circumstances.

There may in fact be a variation in performance as a result of the reduction in the prescribed steps in a process. As I said, not everybody’s judgement is the same. However, if there is as much variation and change in the market (see just about every article ever written about the status and stability of every market, for confirmation of this idea) as noted, then the increased ability to adapt to and deal with this change should in general generate more positive variations than negative ones.

And after all, isn’t positive performance the objective of any process?

Question Everything

One of my favorite shows just started its eleventh season. It is the X-Files. Watching agents Moulder and Scully deal with various supposed conspiracies, monsters and other abnormal behavior associated with aliens (the science fiction ones, not the terrestrial, international border crossing ones), the various hidden agendas and conspiracy leaders obviously got me to thinking about all the parallels that can be drawn between the television show and what actually goes on in business. In the X-Files it is said that “the truth is out there”. That may not truly be the case in business, although one would hope so. With that being said, when searching for answers out there in business, it may be best to remember this little gem: Question Everything.

Since we are crossing the science fiction with the business schools of management here, we probably ought to start with a quote from one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time, Robert Heinlein. He said:

“If “everybody knows” such-and-such, then it ain’t so, by at least ten thousand to one.”

There have been many instances in my career where I have taken on a new role where the phrase “Challenge and opportunity” was involved. At first, I thought this was a management code phrase for a bad thing because that was what those around told me it was. They all knew that the issues and challenges plaguing the operation were deep rooted, endemic and impossible to fix. Many had gone before me and none had been successful.

What I learned was that these challenges and opportunities really are opportunities. They should be sought out, not avoided. They are not easily solved or corrected, but few issues in business ever are. The truth that was out there, was that the solution was not to be found in fixing the issues that others had supposedly identified and already (unsuccessfully) dealt with. Everybody knew that those were the only real issues, and everybody knew that none of the solutions that had been applied worked.

And as Heinlein noted everybody was usually wrong.

When I first take on a new opportunity and challenge, I probably ask a bunch of dumb questions. There are many who think that is the only type of question I am capable of asking. I could see the exasperation on the faces of those that I asked. I was new to the role. I wasn’t fully experienced in it. My questions were probably dumb. It is not a bad thing to own the truth.

That was okay. As I got smarter about the situation, so did my questions.

Invariably I ended up coming back to the original dumb questions. These were the ones that were usually answered with lines such as “That’s the way we do it” or “That process evolved over time” or “It was the result of an event that occurred several years ago”. These were in effect the “everybody knows” we do it that way response.

The eventual solutions invariably came from questioning these “everybody knows” basic tenets of the unit’s operation. Just because that was the way it has been done, doesn’t mean it is the correct, or proper way to do it.

I found that most issues associated with the “challenge and opportunity” performance of a business stemmed from the basics of how the business was set up to run. Too many times it is the symptoms associated with the improper basic assumptions or alignments of an organization that are focused on. These are the easiest things to see, and hence the most visible to treat.

Notice that I said treat, not cure.

If a business performance issue is large enough to be visible to management to the extent that it is felt that a change is needed, it is usually not a superficial, easily recognizable symptom, that is the cause. It usually relates to a basic way that the business is done. Treating a symptom does not cure the problem.

When it comes to this level of business examination, everybody becomes a stakeholder. Everybody has agreed to do it “that way”. And as a result, there will be resistance from everybody when it comes to questioning, and even changing what has been viewed by so many as basic to the way the business has been run.

This means that when questioning everything, be sure to do it on an individual level. When digging in to any organizational or operational can of worms it is best to do it on an individual basis. Jumping back to our science fiction, alien based school of business management thought, Tommy Lee Jones summed up this phenomenon best when he was discussing whether or not to let everyone on earth know that the earth was in danger of being destroyed by aliens in the first Men in Black (MiB) movie. He said:

“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it!”

He was pointing out that people in a group will do, say and act differently than they do as an individual. There is much that has been written about the psychology of groups (and mobs). Most of what has been written is succinctly summed up in what the quote from MiB.

This is no different in business. Almost every individual, will separately acknowledge that a change must be implemented, However, when the individuals are placed in a group, the group will almost always unanimously state that no change is possible, or if change is in fact needed, it is the other groups, and not theirs that must change. This is the group fear of change and the unknown.

We have to remember that science fiction and change in business actually have a lot in common. I think Arthur C. Clarke, another great science fiction writer put it best. He said:

“…science fiction is something that could happen – but usually you wouldn’t want it to.”

When it comes to change in business, it can also be described as something that could happen, but usually most people don’t really want it to. Change means incrementing in risk on both an individual and group level. It is doing something that hasn’t been done before. It requires leaving the current comfort zone. It is as Captain Kirk intoned in the prolog to Star Trek (both the original series and the movies):

“To boldly go where no one has gone before….”

Not everybody is built to be that adventurous. Either in space exploration, or business. That is why process has been created, introduced, and flourished in business. Process is designed to reduce the need for judgment, and add predictability and hence comfort. It in effect, tries to remove the adventure from business.

As such, it also adds impedance and resistance to the need, introduction and acceptance of change. If everyone in the process knows and accepts their role in the process, then any change introduced to the fundamental functions associated with the business will probably affect all of their roles. No one likes to have their role affected by an external entity, regardless of who or what that entity is. Hence, they will either directly or indirectly resist or impede the proposed change.

This effect is usually the genesis of the everyone knows it can’t be done phenomenon.

This brings us to the final intersection between business and science fiction (at least in this article). Terry Pratchett, author of the satirical and humorous “Discworld” series of books put it best:

“It is well known that a vital ingredient of success is not knowing that what you’re attempting can’t be done.”

Not knowing that an issue “can’t be fixed” is probably the key to fixing it. If everyone knows that is the way that things are done, then it is probably a very good place to start looking for solutions. If everyone is resistant to change, then it is probably a good bet that change is what is needed most in that organization.

When changing, you have to question everything. Especially those topics which everyone believes don’t need to be questioned. This is precisely because all the topics that everyone does believe need to be questioned, have probably already been questioned, and didn’t provide the solution. The truth is probably out there, but if you don’t question everything, there is a very good chance that you will miss it in favor of the more easily digested and implemented symptomatic solution, which is probably the one that everybody knows is the right one.

And remember what Heinlein said about what everybody knows…..

Good, Cheap, Fast – Pick Two

This has been a well-known conundrum in business for quite some time. There are always three variables associated with getting the product or service that you want. The variables are Quality, Price and Speed. They are normally associated with the words Good, Cheap and Fast. The conventional question has always been that you cannot get all three variables at high levels at any specific time. If that indeed is a limitation, the question arises: If you are a vendor or supplier dealing with your customers, which two of the Good, Cheap and Fast variables do you choose when delivering your products and services?

As a customer, the simplest answer has always been to demand all three variables, and to demand them immediately. They want the lowest price, the fastest delivery and the best quality. They want it now and please don’t argue. We have all been there. However, even the most demanding of customers recognize that this is usually only an opening gambit and that there will always be negotiations associated with what is actually obtained and when it is to be delivered.

In the past customer hierarchy of desirable product attributes, Quality has ruled as king. The higher the quality, the more reliable the product, the better the customer liked it. They would possibly make concessions to either Cheap and Fast, if they got the best Good there was.

If Quality, or Good, was the given, then the customer (and vendor) needed to decide which other variable, Price or Speed was going to be sacrificed. I think that history will show that for the most part it was speed. (In support of this position I will submit that almost all product and productivity focus in the last few generations of products have been on how to take time out of the equation). Even the axiomatic statements associated with business in general refer to the fact that the pace of change within business has been accelerating.

That meant that a good customer would wait for a good product, and that they would get at a good price.

Those were the days. That does not seem to be the case anymore.

As I just noted, everything about business has accelerated. Cycle times for everything from product development to customer billing have been reduced. No one wants to wait for anything anymore. What was once fast or accelerated is now the new normal. Full speed is now the minimum accepted and if you expect to get ahead you had better figure out how to go even faster. They want it all now.

We have become an immediate gratification society.

What was once saved for, and purchased later, is now purchased today on credit, and paid for later.

So, if this increased focus on Speed, or Fast, is the new primary given requirement (instead of Quality, or Good) for driving customer satisfaction, then which of the two, Good and Cheap, will be the second factor chosen in the customer purchase decision? (remember, the axiom of you can only have two of the three variables at any time still pretty much holds in reality – or does it….) One would suspect that since Quality was so important in the past that it would also be of high importance today. That would leave cheap as the odd variable out.

That would also mean that customers want their products and services Fast and Good, and would hence be willing to pay the requisite higher price associated with this variable selection.

I do not know about you, but it has been a very long time since I have dealt with a customer that is willing to pay more for anything, regardless of speed and quality.

I think the reality is that price is still king. It is very difficult to sell a higher price versus a competitive product regardless of the speed and quality delivered. It can be done, but you are starting out at a significant competitive disadvantage if you start with a higher price than your competition.

As I have noted in the past Good in the business vernacular has been replaced by “Good Enough”. As product life cycles have become shorter (there’s “Fast” again) and prices have come down as components, support, warranties and service have been reduced (there’s “Cheap” again), Good has been reduced down to Good Enough to compensate.

The answer to the Good, Fast and Cheap, pick two conundrum in today’s business environment is now Fast and Cheap.

How quickly can the product be in the market? It has to be fast because there will be another, better competing product put out by a competitor soon enough. It better be cheap because customers most likely won’t buy a more expensive product, regardless of any (temporary) advantages. As for quality? That’s now a given. It is almost impossible to differentiate in the market based on a quality variable. Almost all manufacturers in just about any given market can be viewed as having a high-quality parity.

Today, if a company is not viewed as having a high / acceptable quality level in its products, they won’t be surviving for very long.

As an example, look at automobiles. Manufacturers have tiered the market into sub-markets based on car size (e.g. Sub-compact, compact, mid-size, etc.). Many manufacturers have created specific models to address and compete in each specific market tier.

The model for buying a car has “Fast” as a given, since I don’t know anyone willing to wait for a specific car to be manufactured for them – they want to drive off the lot in their new car when they buy it, not at some later time. That leaves Price and Quality as the final negotiation variables. I think Quality for the most part is also a given since now almost all cars come with similar warranties, usually somewhere between six and ten years. If you don’t believe Quality is a given in cars, try negotiating a longer warranty for your car as a term of the purchase agreement.

Let me know how that works out for you.

That essentially leaves Price as the next (only) selected variable in your car purchase decision. The starting price can vary a little, based on the feature set that the car is equipped with (X, SX, LX, etc.), but even that is limited. Fast (you want to drive off in it) and Cheap (you don’t want to pay anything more than you absolutely have to), are the criteria.

Fast and Cheap. That’s it. That’s where we are in business.

Now there may be other variables that you input into the decision criteria such as the car must have an appealing design. This is a matter of personal taste. Car companies spend incredible amounts of money in creating appealing designs for each of their cars. Car companies also spend incredible amounts of money advertising these appealing designs with the objective of convincing you that theirs is the most appealing, (Mazda has gone so far as to create a commercial showing what I suppose is a sculptor, sculpting the latest appealing design of their latest car model) and hence getting you to come to their dealership where you can negotiate the price and then drive off in that appealing (work of art) car.

There are always exceptions to every rule in business. That is also probably also a rule of business as well. However, when putting together a strategy on how to attack a market in general, and to pursue specific customers on an individual basis, with quality now thought of as a given in the market where “Good Enough” is now good enough, focusing on speed and price will most likely provide the best competitive advantage.

Answering questions as to how quickly the solution can be acquired and more importantly implemented will be a differentiator. Price, more so than almost ever before will be a decision driver. With almost all products now being viewed as easily interchangeable, why would a customer pay more for anything?

I remember the good old days where management would blithely tell the sales team to sell “quality” when their market price was higher than the competition. Management would say reference the product’s “quality” when there was a delay in product availability.

Now if a product takes too long to arrive in the market, or the price is too high, the opportunity is most likely lost. It doesn’t matter what management will want to tell the sales team. A competitor will have a substitutable product available when the customer wants it at a price they can afford.

Times have changed. Quality was once a product differentiator. It is probably not anymore. Of all the resources available to everyone, time is the only one that we cannot readily get any more of. Hence Speed has become the new prime differentiator. With Quality a given, and speed a differentiator, that leaves Price as a decision driver.

Customers might pay a little more for a preferred product, but that differential is closing fast. The more expensive you are versus the competition, the more disadvantaged you are. There will always come a point where the Price differential will always outweigh any Speed or Quality advantages. That Price differential point is always moving closer and closer to the Cheapest solution.

Engineering Solutions

There can be no question that engineers are one of the cornerstones of any successful technology oriented business organization. It doesn’t matter if they are hardware, software, electrical, mechanical, chemical or even civil engineers. Their role and importance cannot be overstated. We need to be very clear about that. I will try to walk the fine line of discussing the work of engineers in business without sliding into the realm of picking on engineers in business. Wish me luck.

It has been said:

“With great power comes great responsibility”

The origin of this quote is attributed to two wildly different sources: Voltaire, the eighteenth-century philosopher, and Uncle Ben, the Spiderman character, not the instant rice one. Both are acknowledged as saying something close but not quite like this, hence the somewhat open-ended attribution.

If I have a choice I’m going with Uncle Ben. Just because I haven’t seen that many entertaining movies about Voltaire and the French Enlightenment. However, I am sure that Marvel Comics will eventually get around to it. Probably after Thor – Thirteen, or some such time.

Mark Twain however, is widely acknowledged as the source of this quote:

“To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

I believe the modern technology equivalent of this statement is now:

“To an engineer, every question looks like it needs an engineering solution.”

Herein is where we get to the topic of engineering solutions. Engineers have a great power and responsibility when it comes to finding solutions to today’s customer based technological opportunities. A solution usually cannot be created, or implemented without them. Somebody usually has to put them together, and that somebody is usually an engineer.

Engineers have been trained starting in school to create the best solution. It usually entails a single variable. The strongest solution. The highest. The most secure. The longest. The tallest. Very seldom is there a scale or constraint added where there is some sort of trade off versus another variable. This can have a tendency to be the mindset that engineers use when creating real world solutions.

But even in this high technology, engineering dependent environment, it must be remembered that engineering is only part of the solution, not the entire solution. We are no longer in a time where a president can challenge a country to reach a goal, and the engineers can spend whatever is necessary to reach it. Doing things because they are difficult is a great challenge, but doing them within a budget is even a greater challenge.

About this time, I will have lost all readers that have an engineering degree, an engineering role or even just an engineering predilection. To mention that there are items other than engineering that are important to customer solutions, in their eyes can border on blasphemy. Unfortunately, that is the business world that we now live in. I have talked about this evolution before. It is the transition from the best solution, to the solution that is good enough. This idea is likely to drive engineers crazy.

Little things like money, time and resources must also be taken into account when creating a customer centric solution. This is because, contrary to standard engineering thought, the customer does not necessarily want the best engineered solution. They want the best solution that matches their money, time and resource constraints.

Engineers must be continually reminded of these real-world business constraints: money, time and resources. Otherwise it is not uncommon for them to develop the ultimate engineered solution, that is wholly implausible or unimplementable in the real world. It may be the best technical solution, but there will be very few that can afford to buy and implement it.

When engineering customer solutions, it is best not to think in terms of “absolutes”. Words like the “greatest”, “most” and “best” need modifiers otherwise engineers have a tendency to take them as literal objectives and work to them accordingly. This can result in some of the most elegantly over-engineered solutions imaginable.

Pareto Analysis is a statistical technique in decision-making used for the selection of a limited number of tasks that produce significant overall effect. It uses the Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) the idea that by doing 20% of the work you can generate 80% of the benefit of doing the entire job. (https://www.projectsmart.co.uk/pareto-analysis-step-by-step.php)

Many think that it was the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto who created the Eighty – Twenty rule. To a certain extent this is somewhat true. Pareto first observed that 80% of income in Italy was received by 20% of the Italian population. However, it was management thinker Joseph M. Juran who actually suggested the principle and its far wider applications. Because of Pareto’s observation and work, the technique was named for him. (https://www.entrepreneurs-journey.com/397/80-20-rule-pareto-principle/)

Business, in all its simplest forms, is about investment and return. How much you put in versus how much you get out. This is the basis for employment decisions (if the company thinks that a person will generate more value for the company than the company will have to pay that person in compensation, then the company makes the hiring decision), and it is that way in purchasing decisions (amount paid versus expected return), and it needs to be that way in generating customer solutions.

Customers are not blessed with infinite resources. As I have said, in many instances they cannot afford to pay for what may be considered the “best” solution. Time and money always come into play for them. How much must they pay for each solution? What definable value does the solution generate (reduced costs, increased sales, etc.)? When would they expect to see these returns (the sooner the better)?

Engineers are excellent at the quantifiable. It is the nature of their work. However, if left unchecked they do have a tendency to view costs, time and resources more as “variables” instead of “constraints”. This is where business and leadership reinforcement is required.

When working with engineers, boundaries and constraints are a necessity. An upper limit on costs must be set. This can be in the form of a specific number (The cost cannot exceed…) or a derived relationship (the customer requires a pay-back period of….) based on costs, value generated and specific time frames. This will enable the engineer to modify various combinations of these business variables, but also provide a limiting constraint on the solution.

This customer pay-back period can also be used to help generate the value limit as well. If as Pareto has asserted that first eighty percent of the value can usually be derived with the first twenty percent of the effort, then it should follow that each additional amount of engineering effort (or any effort for that matter) will only provide a continually decreasing return. If the desired customer pay-back is based on returns and time, there is a limit as to what can be engineered within the constraint. Only so much can be done before the cost or pay-back period are exceeded.

It should be noted that not all engineers are so single-mindedly focused on engineering solutions. I have had the opportunity to work with several who understood that good customer solutions are the result of many, sometimes opposing forces in the solution creation process. These are the engineers that have recognized that real world issues and solutions have both a cost and a value associated with them.

A few final comments and observations on the engineering of solutions:

The optimist will look a glass that is half full of water and say that it is indeed half full.

The pessimist will look at the same glass and say that it is in fact half empty.

The engineer will look at it and say the glass is twice as big as it should be, and will set about trying to engineer a smaller glass that will be much more efficient in the holding of that specific amount of water.

Before they are allowed to do that, it is best to check to make sure that the customer wasn’t all that thirsty to begin with, and the amount in the glass is all the water that they wanted at this time. It might actually save more time, money and effort than the solution the engineer would create.

There are probably many engineers that would like to argue this point of view. I have found that for an engineer, the next best thing to trying to engineer the best solution to a problem, is to argue about what is the best engineered solution to a problem. For those of you that have not had the opportunity to argue with an engineer, this is a good time to remember the following quote:

“Arguing with an engineer is a lot like wrestling in the mud with a pig, after a couple of hours you realize the pig likes it.” (anonymous).

Would You Like To Buy The Brooklyn Bridge? – An Infrastructure Sales Story

I have been thinking a lot about infrastructure lately. There are many different types of infrastructure out there. While I am primarily in the High-tech infrastructure environment, almost every other industry has its own type of infrastructure (think oil, airlines, brewing, etc.) and for me, it is hard not to think about things like the Brooklyn bridge when you start talking about infrastructure. I think by way of analogy, I’ll stay with bridges in general and the Brooklyn bridge in particular for this discussion, because it enables me to make the general points I want to make about infrastructure sales and business decisions, and there are a ton of very cool facts that I was able to discover, and hence would like to share.

“The Brooklyn Bridge looms majestically over New York City’s East River, linking the two boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Since 1883, its granite towers and steel cables have offered a safe and scenic passage to millions of commuters and tourists, trains and bicycles, pushcarts and cars. The bridge’s construction took 14 years, involved 600 workers and cost $15 million (more than $320 million in today’s dollars). At least two dozen people died in the process, including its original designer. Now more than 125 years old, this iconic feature of the New York City skyline still carries roughly 150,000 vehicles and pedestrians every day.” Or so says History.com. (http://www.history.com/topics/brooklyn-bridge.)

I find this to be very interesting. Here is some infrastructure that was built 135 years ago and is still in service. In fact, it could be said that based on its load and traffic, it is doing more now than it was doing 135 years ago when it was put in service. It cost $320 M in today’s dollars, but probably could not be built for fifty times that ($15 Billion) today. It was basically designed to last 100 years, but at 135 years it is still going strong.

Please note these facts. I will be getting back to them.

When it comes to selling infrastructure, there is one man that historically stands out, head and shoulders above all others: “George C. Parker (March 16, 1860 – 1936) was an American con man best known for his surprisingly successful attempts to “sell” the Brooklyn Bridge. He made his living conducting illegal sales of property he did not own, often New York’s public landmarks, to unwary immigrants. The Brooklyn Bridge was the subject of several of his transactions, predicated on the notion of the buyer controlling access to the bridge. Police removed several of his victims from the bridge as they tried to erect toll booths.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_C._Parker.)

What this teaches us is that if you are going to sell infrastructure it is important to identify the proper customers.

What this also shows is that George was a man who was way ahead of his time. If he was selling infrastructure today he probably would be incredibly successful selling infrastructure to those that are actually in that business, and would not have to spend the last eight years of his life behind bars in Sing Sing prison.

It is also important to understand the engineering associated with some of the existing infrastructure (at least in the US, and probably elsewhere – look at the London Bridge for example), as people go around trying to make a case to replace it. The engineering associated with older infrastructure usually far and away exceeds the stress requirements that were to be placed on it. This probably cannot be said today. As costs have skyrocketed, engineers are now designing and building structures as close to the required loads and specifications as possible in order to keep those costs low. That means they also do not last.

In other words, in the past infrastructure was usually built to last. In addition to old bridges, think about all the pictures in magazines (and on the web) of the old copper pot stills being used at the various breweries (my personal favorite), and bourbon and scotch distilleries. I am sure that all the manufacturers of commercial distillery equipment would like to replace them, but I suspect that also isn’t going to happen any time soon.

Again, looking at our favorite infrastructure example: “(it employed) a bridge and truss system that was six times as strong as was thought it needed to be. Because of this, the Brooklyn Bridge is still standing when many of the bridges built around the same time have vanished or been replaced.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brooklyn_Bridge.)

For comparison sakes, a newer piece of infrastructure, the Tappan Zee bridge was put into service, in the same area, about 70 years after the Brooklyn bridge: “As another example, the original Tappan Zee Bridge was opened in 1955, and construction of its replacement is now underway. A 2009 New York state report on the original bridge described its design as “non-redundant,” meaning that one critical component failure could result in large-scale failure; the bridge was featured in a History Channel show entitled “The Crumbling of America.” The new bridge is being designed with a 100-year lifespan; info about the “New NY Bridge” is available” here. (http://www.mondaq.com/unitedstates/x/287844/Building+Construction/Lifespan+of+a+Bridge+Span.)

And there is also: “After years of dawdling while the bridge crumbled, state officials say they are rushing to complete a review of the most feasible solutions to the problem of the Tappan Zee. But a decision is still two years off and a new bridge would require eight additional years and as much as $14.5 billion to build, they say.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/17/nyregion/a-bridge-that-has-nowhere-left-to-go.html.)

“The bridge was built on a very tight budget of $81 million (1950 dollars), or $796 million in 2014 dollars.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tappan_Zee_Bridge.)

This would indicate that more recent infrastructure is usually neither designed to last as long as some of the older infrastructure, nor is it as reliable and cost effective as some of the older, over-engineered variety.

This would lead many to the position that for some of the older infrastructure, it would be much more economically feasible to repair it, upgrade it, maintain it, than it would be to replace it. This is despite what many of the current infrastructure suppliers might want or even indicate. If it is working and can still continue to work, why would anyone want to build another bridge, right next to the still working one, to carry the same traffic.

However, just because it was initially built well doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t or doesn’t need to be maintained. Infrastructure requires continued investment in order to maintain it: “The repairs, ordered quietly last October by the city’s Department of Transportation, are intended to fortify the concrete-reinforced steel-mesh panels beneath the bridge’s traffic lanes, which were found to be deteriorating by construction crews at work on a repaving project last July, officials said yesterday.….. the city’s Transportation Commissioner, attributed the problems to ”normal wear and tear” on the 115-year-old bridge…..He added that the steel girding and concrete that must be repaired, which were put in place during a 1954 repaving project, ”were installed with a life expectancy of 60 years,” and had therefore fulfilled most of their engineering mandate.” (http://www.nytimes.com/1999/02/05/nyregion/as-concrete-falls-city-moves-to-fix-brooklyn-bridge.html.)

And of course, 20 years later more maintenance is needed on the Brooklyn bridge, only now, the cost is climbing: “The cost of repairing the Brooklyn Bridge is expected to hit $811 million — a roughly $200 million increase from estimates made only last year, The Post has learned. When the mammoth project to renovate the 133-year-old span began in 2010, the price tag was even lower — $508 million.” (http://nypost.com/2016/11/11/brooklyn-bridge-repairs-expected-to-cost-811m/.)

So, where does all this bridge information leave us when it comes to selling infrastructure?

I think the first thing to note is that unless the infrastructure is at risk of immediate failure, such as the Tappan Zee bridge is deemed to be, it is going to be very difficult to replace. You may be able to add to it. You may be able to augment it. But the financials usually do not make sense for a full replacement. It is going to be a tough sell to get a customer to buy something that does much the same as the thing it is trying to replace.

It also looks as though capacity is going to be the prime driver for infrastructure expansion and augmentation. The more cars that want to get across the river, the bigger the needed bridge, or the more bridges that are needed. New features and elegant designs of bridges are pretty cool, but the objective is to still get cars across the river as efficiently as possible. Form is nice, but it is function that predominantly drives infrastructure acquisition.

And I think finally, there is an excellent business to be had repairing, maintaining and improving the existing infrastructure. As we see above, even incredibly expensive bridge repairs are economically preferable to what would be the exorbitantly expensive cost of replacing the infrastructure. The Tappan Zee replacement bridge is expected to cost between $4 Billion and $15 Billion. The original Tappan Zee cast $81 Million. The financial math becomes pretty obvious, pretty quickly.

Focusing on how to improve the existing infrastructure, extend its life and help it to be used or run more efficiently are going to be keys to a customer first mentality that the good sales teams are going to need in order to be successful.

I think this is going to be especially important as customers are rapidly learning that the new infrastructure they buy today is not going to last as long as the old infrastructure they already have today.

If you don’t believe me, just look at the bridges.

For the Money

“One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, and four—-to—-go—-!”

In case you are wondering, the earliest attribution for this phrase that I could find is in the children’s book, “Striking for the Right” By Julia Arabella Eastman, in 1872.

Some of you however may be more familiar with the 1955 variation that Carl Perkins included in his song “Blue Suede Shoes’:

“Well, it’s one for the money,
Two for the show,
Three to get ready,
Now go, cat, go.”

I think Elvis did it better than Carl, but that really isn’t relevant to today’s discussion.

In either case, as you might guess, my focus here is going to be on “for the money” as I think we may have lost track of this part of the phrase, particularly as it relates to sales.

A phrase that is generally thought of as a countdown to the start of a children’s race or contest, is becoming more and more germane to the increasingly high-pressure contest of business to business sales. However, in many instances it appears that organizations are skipping the first line of the phrase and focusing on the second, third and fourth lines. Now usually to some form of hardship.

As we go through what might be described as tectonic shifts in the business, capital and sales markets and processes, brought on by the evolution of the cloud, the Internet of Things (IoT), and the multiplicity of other technological discontinuities they have engendered, “for the money” is probably going to take on an increasingly important role, particularly in the sales process. It is probably time to start steering away from the age old, tired sales phrases associated with focusing on quality, or value, or any other direction from a past time.

We have all been aware of “Moore’s Law”, which in its simplest iteration generally states that new products arrive with essentially double the previous product’s capacities every eighteen to twenty-four months. What this postulate also infers is that products can be expected to become obsolete every two years as well. This is now an important concept since previous views of product life expectancies were once much longer.

The difference now is that as new capabilities and applications are developed, they are more and more dependent on the latest generation of technology for their functionalities.

As an example: What would you pay for a car today, if you expected that in two years it would not be able to efficiently run on, or possibly even be able to access the new highways that are being built? What would you pay for that car if in two years it would not be capable of allowing you to drive to all the new destinations that would be available then?

Would it change your car buying patterns? Probably.
Would it change how much you would be willing to spend on a car, knowing that your time horizon for needing to purchase the next new car – which would then allow to run on the new highways and go to the new destinations – was going to be so short? I think so as well.

Such is the situation for just about every company and organization when it comes to their information technology needs.

Eureka. This sounds like every vendor’s paradise. Knowing that your customer is going to have to buy a new product every two years. What could be better?

I guess the first thing would be to make sure that all capabilities and applications that are developed are equally applicable across all customers.

Uh oh. That doesn’t seem to be the case since different companies need and demand different capabilities. And since vendors do not have infinite resources to develop all possible applications and capabilities in parallel, we cannot expect a continued alignment of applications, capabilities and the platforms required to run them.

And since customers do not have infinite capital to be able to afford each and every application, capability and platform as they come out, we return the new catch phrase, “for the money”.

Customers do not want the best solution.

I know this sounds like heresy but this has been proven time and time again. They want the best solution – for the money. They do not want the best service. They want the best service – for the money. Value and quality are good, but they are table stakes, not differentiators. And make no mistake about it, since the product life cycles and associated obsolescence are now so short, there is corresponding less money for each customer to spend on each purchase iteration. With the reduction in customer capital available to purchase each new product iteration the question is no longer how much functionality can a customer afford, but what is good enough to serve their purposes for now.

Whether it is said or not, it should be implied that every sentence used in communications between the vendor and customer, should end with the phrase “for the money”.

With this concept in mind it becomes a little easier to understand the changing landscapes for sales in the business to business world. Buying new higher capacity platforms in anticipation of being prepared for future applications or capabilities probably will no longer occur. The fear of platform obsolescence before the capabilities are available, along with new constrictions on purchase funds will probably preclude that.

Future capabilities will be purchased in the future, when they have been developed and can demonstrate immediate (not future) value to the customer.

Because of the direct relationship between purchase capital and product capability, reliability, capacity, speed, etc., all those factors have become negotiable as “for the money” comes into play. Communications networks that had essentially one hundred percent reliability and twenty-year life expectancies are being superseded by far less reliable but faster terrestrial and more convenient but equally less reliable wireless networks. They are good enough, at a far lower cost.

Personal computers and laptops that used to cost thousands of dollars are now costing a couple hundred dollars and are expected to be outdated, and disposable within two years. They are not repaired, they are replaced, at a far lower cost.

I have said that if customers are not buying it is probably because the sales team has not generated the appropriate business case for that customer’s business to justify the purchase. Immediate expenditures will require immediate value generation to offset them.

For the money is emerging as the prime parameter associated with this same customer business case sales process. Customers are recognizing that the lowest common denominator functionalities are what are required for their business. By way of example, Sprint seems to have fully embraced this approach to wireless services in that they are openly touting that they are “within one percent of the coverage / reliability” of their competitors, but only half the cost.

Their catch phrase is: “Why would you pay twice as much for only one percent more?”

We had all better take note of this approach to the market. In case you are wondering, Sprint grew more than any of its competitors in the last quarter. (https://www.cnet.com/news/even-sprint-topped-at-t-verizon-in-customer-growth/). And this is after several previous poor quarter performances.

In the article, it is noted:
“…Sprint with a campaign that essentially boils down to this: We’re good enough for your business. The company’s commercials play up its half-off plans versus the competition (the rates go up after two years) and a mere 1 percent difference between the quality of its network and that of Verizon.”

The key comment for me is “…good enough for your business.” I think this approach is becoming the new norm. Being the best is great, but being good enough, for half the price, is probably going to be better. It seems to be resonating with the market as they continue to attract new customers.

There will always be exceptions to every norm. There will be those customers that truly want the elevated capabilities, and will be willing to pay for them. There are those that want luxury cars as their form of transportation, when there are almost any number of less expensive models that will deliver the same functionality at a far lower cost. Most companies, like most of us, do not have the luxury of preferring luxury.

They are moving more and more toward the Sprint model that good enough, at half the price, is better than the best at double the cost. As budgets continue to constrict, for both consumers and companies, the comparison of what is wanted versus what is good enough for the money, will continue to change the landscape for sales. It is probably time for many businesses to change their sales model to focus on what is good enough for the money.

Why They Aren’t Buying

There are all sorts of allegories for sales. Hunting, farming, fishing, and a large list of others. They all seem somewhat out-doorsy and active (as opposed to passive – waiting for something to happen), but I think you get the point I’m making. Sales also seems to run in streaks. Some days it seems you can’t miss and all you need to say is “sign here, press hard for three copies”. And other days it doesn’t seem to matter what you do. You don’t seem to be able to close a door, let alone a deal.

We all like to think that it is superior salesmanship, or possibly a break-through product or technology advantage, when sales are good. We also like to point to inferior marketing and support, or a weak product offering when sales are not up to expectations.

When sales are not up to desired levels, it is usually left to management to blame poor salesmanship for the results, since both product technology and support are not readily changeable items in any short-term drive to improve sales.

I think the reality of sales booms and sales busts are more associated with those factors that either occur or evolve on a market wide basis. The deregulation of the mortgage industry led to an explosive growth in housing sales as people could then buy more house than they could normally afford, via balloon payment type and other exotic mortgages. This worked well until payments came due and real money was not available. The well documented housing bust and broader economic recession ensued.

Going a little further back into the end of the last century, was the telecom boom associated with deregulation. Companies suddenly found themselves with the opportunity to enter communications markets that they had previously been restricted from. This market attractiveness was further exacerbated by all equipment supplier’s willingness to lend these new companies the funds that they would need to by their equipment to enable access into these new markets.

This too worked well until the then new market was flooded with new competitors. The result was that there was not enough business to go around and no one had the real money needed to make their loan payments on their equipment. The well documented telecom bust then ensued as well.

In both of these examples, as well as many others across many other industries (banking, oil, etc), there were some very good times to be in sales, which were then followed by some very trying times to be in sales. It didn’t really matter what your individual effect on the sales process was.

I bring up these kind of market wide events not because I want to examine them, but because I want to exclude them from any discussion regarding why customers may, or more importantly may not be buying now. When various markets are thrown out of equilibrium by any number of market affecting legislative changes or other events, it seems that standard sales logic just doesn’t apply – usually to the eventual detriment of all involved.

I want to briefly look at why in a stable market, sales may not be achieving your desired goals.

I think that when you look at sales there are basically three aspects that need to be in place to be successful. Some may point to a multiplicity of other factors, but I think when you net them all out, you get back to these three basic ones.

The first is relationship. I know. This is trite. Relationship blah, blah, relationship. There is a reason everyone says it is important. That’s because it is. Do you trust the guy that sells you a car? No? That’s partly because you know that once he sells you a car, you are no longer his problem. You are the service department’s problem. He is probably not going to talk to you or try to sell you anything else for a while, unless you decide you need another car.

In the business to business sales world, most sales people cannot achieve their targets by simply selling something to a customer every three or four years. They have to face their customer continually. What they do after the sale is probably more important than what they do before the contract is signed. That is if they hope to get another sale.

That is how a relationship is built.

The second is the ability to solve a customer’s problem. It might be a problem they didn’t know they had. Faster, better, cheaper are always items that come to mind. Understanding what a customer wants to do as well as why they want to do it are keys here. It is in essence providing an answer to their question.

The third is providing the customer with the proper reason to buy your solution. This is usually known as a business case. If you are ten percent faster, but twice as expensive, is this acceptable? It’s hard to say at this point without more information. However, it’s a much easier decision if you are ten percent faster and the same price as a competitor.

Having a great relationship with your customer, and a great product are no longer enough. There must be a strong enough financial reason for a customer to buy. The customer must expect a sufficient return on the monies that they invest in a product in order to get them to spend those monies.

This customer return can take several forms. Does it reduce their costs of operations? Does it allow them to gain more customers? Does it allow them to get more revenue from their existing customers? And just as importantly, when does it allow them to recognize these returns. These are all very definable and quantifiable numbers.

If they are not, then in today’s business climate and environment, you may have an issue closing a sale. Quantification of customer value is rapidly becoming the key to sales success.

It should be noted that saving a dollar this year is far more preferable than potentially saving ten dollars, five years from now.

It seems that suppliers can get seduced by the elegance of their own technical solutions to their customer’s problems. They have a tendency to forget that just because what they are offering may be technically better than what the customers may currently have, that no longer means that a sale is assured. If the customer cannot identify the quantifiable benefit and returns associated with the proposed purchase, and when these returns can be expected, then the expectation should be of a difficult or delayed sales process.

Just because they trust you and what you are offering is better doesn’t mean they will buy it.

It appears that it is more and more about money, and more specifically today’s money when it comes to sales. Preparing for future opportunities, or addressing potential opportunities, or enabling future applications may no longer be a good enough reason for a customer to part with their limited amount of funds set aside for such expenditures. Customers are recognizing that if the sales discussion involves future benefits to them, then it also means that the actual purchase decision can probably be delayed to that future time when it coincides with those future benefits.

In today’s business environment, if companies are going to spend their money, they need to know what they are going to get in return. Not just the product or service that they are purchasing, but the quantification regarding what the purchased items will mean to their bottom line. How much of a reduction in costs. How many more customers. How much more will they be able to charge.

If today’s product will enable an as yet undefined application or future capability, then it is probably wise to assume that today’s customer may in fact wait to purchase that product until that future application or capability is defined and the market for and value of it can be quantified. Being bigger, better and faster for the sake of being prepared for the next big thing and the potential associated end user demands that go along with it, is probably no longer going to be a good enough reason to purchase.

If your customers aren’t buying, and there is no discernible, market wide issue causing a broader customer industry slowdown, then it is probably a good guess that the appropriate customer spend business case has not been made or met. As markets evolve to this technical solution – appropriate business case model, the solution price will remain a key aspect of every opportunity, but not so much from the aspect of how much a customer has to spend, but more from the point of view of how much the proposed solution must recoup in value for the customer, and as previously noted and just as importantly, how long it takes the customer to recoup it.

It is also possible that this lack of an appropriate specific return customer business case can turn out to be the broader customer industry slowdown, since all customers seem to be heading this direction. It can also depend on the relative competitive starting point for each customer in their respective markets.

It doesn’t seem that being bigger, better, faster or prepared for the next new thing will remain as good enough reasons for customers to buy. It appears that it will not be what the proposed customer solution operationally or technically does, but more what it financially does for the immediate benefit of the customer’s bottom line that will be the purchase decision criteria.

Looking a Little Farther Ahead

I almost got hit by a truck the other day driving home from golf. Now a lot of you may be wondering what that kind of statement has to do with the nominal topics of business management and sales that I usually deal with here. I’ll get to that in a minute. For those of you that live here in Texas, you know that the word “truck” can cover a lot of territory. Everything from a go-kart with a toy wagon bed welded on, to a Peterbilt cab-over semi tractor-trailer. In this case I’m pretty sure that it was a Dodge Ram 2500 Crew Cab since the badging was at eye height as I looked out the window at it. In Texas, this qualifies as a “standard” sized truck. Anything smaller and you’re considered either a poser or a city-boy. Still, it outweighed my full-sized car by close to a ton.

Driving on the freeways in Dallas can usually best be described as a cross between bumper cars and playing a game of “chicken” at seventy miles an hour. As long as everybody abides by the same rules and speed, traffic seems to flow along reasonably, bumper to bumper at seventy miles an hour with a minimum of bad language and hand gestures.

However, occasionally there are those that appear to be unfamiliar with the freeway rules of the road, and opt for what I am sure they feel is a little more intelligently safer speed when changing lanes or taking exit ramps, and other such things. They also usually use their turn signals when performing these maneuvers, and equally importantly, turn off their turn signals when they are done. These people are easy to identify in that they usually have a very long line of impatient drivers behind them.

In this case, I was the then last car in such a line of several cars behind one of these drivers, as we all were taking an off-ramp which connected one high-speed freeway to another.

This position is the most feared position in all of Texas driving. You are going slower than everyone behind you, with little to no options of avoidance in front of, or to the side of you. You have a tendency to watch your rear-view mirror rather closely in such situations.

The SUV immediately behind me was a little slow on the recognition of the situation, but was still able to slow down and pull over to the left side of the ramp, but remained behind me. This maneuver on their part took them out of harm’s way and still left me fully exposed. The truck in question behind them however, did not seem to be as alert to the situation.

Did you know that even though they do not cause the loud, wailing skids that we are all accustomed to on television, you can still hear anti-lock brakes as they try to stop a large truck coming toward you? It’s sort of a staccato noise as the brakes bite and release as they avoid the skid. It is not something you really want to hear as it gets louder or closer.

At the last moment before hitting me, the driver of the truck swerved up over the curb on the ramp to the right of me. His truck came to a stop alongside my car, where as I noted earlier, I could very clearly see its name and size outside my passenger side window.

As traffic started to resume speed, I went ahead and let him pass me on the right. This is not usual protocol for Texas driving, but in light of the circumstances, I felt an exception might be in order. After a moment’s hesitation, the truck drove off and my journey home resumed.

So, here is where the business lesson for this event comes into play.

Most of the time we are all focused on what we are doing at that particular time. We are minding our own business. We are focused on our deliverables. We are paying attention to our deadlines. We have our own worries.

Occasionally we look up to see what the next step is. We have a process. We are preparing for what we must do next. We are looking ahead, but only at what comes next. We are aware that there are other factors that are coming into play. We are in effect checking the car in front of us.

For the most part, this approach will keep you out of most of the trouble that is out there. However, there will come a time when the expected events will not occur. The situation will present itself with alarming speed.

In other words, you could find yourself driving along in your big Texas truck, minding your own business, when suddenly the car directly in front of you dodges out of the way and you find yourself presented with the opportunity to smash into me from behind.

It’s not enough to only be aware of what you are doing and what those immediately around you are doing. On occasion, you need to be looking up and checking the horizon. What is coming into view? What are the competitors doing? Are they adding or deleting resources? What are the customers doing? Are they buying and spending, or are they delaying purchases? What are the analysts saying about the market in general and the company in particular?

Are there multiple cars up ahead with their brake lights on, and should you be prepared to, or possibly already be in the process of slowing down?

The combination of the increased reliance on process, along with the seemingly continuous growth in the reverence for the corporate fire fighter when the process fails, does not seem to mesh with this anticipatory approach to things. Processes have been implemented for the most part to reduce the reliance on this kind of judgement. It almost seems that the corporate fire fighter has been integrated into the process for those times when the process breaks down.

Sort of a “In case of Fire, Break Glass” kind of thing.

The lanes in business continue to be further refined by process. Dotted lines become solid lines, become multiple solid lines, become fixed dividers. If you don’t believe this to be the case, just look at any inter-organizational process flow chart.

It is very easy to focus solely on what you are doing. To perform your function in the process. The organizational structure and incentives now focus on that type of professional behavior. And for the most part, things can and do go relatively smoothly. Until they don’t.

Inevitably someone will miss a step, or improperly hand-off an incomplete work project, and things will unexpectedly slow down. Customers may decide to postpone their next purchase and wait for the next generation of product. Competitors may introduce new technology ahead of when it was expected. Foreign competitors may decide to instigate a new competitive approach based on price.

Processes are resistant to change, and will take time to adapt. They don’t come with anti-lock brakes. They have an inherent amount of momentum associated with them. Just like a speeding full sized, crew cab Texas truck. It’s not enough to be performing your operational duties in a vacuum. You need to be looking forward at the traffic and events in front of you.

Markets don’t provide plenty of warning when they are going to change. Customers rarely tell you when they are going to slow down or stop buying altogether. Companies usually don’t give you a pre-notice when they are going to have to react to the changes in customer and market status.

Looking out, looking forward, anticipating the changes in the business environment are still key to navigating in business. Processes are helpful in simplifying the immediate and making it somewhat more predictable, but it is still your responsibility to be anticipating those future needs and directions that the business environment will present you.

Now if I could just get the people in those large trucks when they following me to do that a little better.

What is a “Plug”?

For some reason, I have been reading and thinking about forecasting for the last little while. One of the words that seems to be popping up more and more frequently in the business literature with respect to forecasting is the word “plug”. I have actually heard this word in past forecasting meetings that I have attended. I thought I might delve in a level deeper than just understanding forecasting, and look into one of the more favored words in the forecasting vernacular: “plug”.

Plug is an interesting word. The dictionary defines it as both a noun (a thing) and a verb (an action). I’ve also talked about words like this before. You used to go to a party, and now you can also go and party. I think that plug is a much earlier iteration of this particular phenomena. Usually a word is used as either a noun or a verb. I am not so sure that this is the case with the word plug when it comes to its business usage. I think that when you hear the word “plug” in business, it is both a thing and an action at the same time.

As a noun plug can usually mean either:

“an obstruction blocking a hole, pipe, etc.” or “a device for making an electrical connection, especially between an appliance and a power supply…”.

As a verb Plug can usually mean either:

“block or fill in (a hole or cavity)” or “mention (a product, event, or establishment) publicly in order to promote it.”

For now, I think I’ll ignore the appliance power cord and product promotion definitions for obvious reasons, and focus on the other two.

As the ends of various months, quarters, and years come into view, forecasting takes on a role of increased importance. Depending on the business performance, as these end of period times roll around forecasting can take on both a greater frequency and intensity, especially if the numbers are not in management’s desired range. As I have noted, forecasting is essentially the comparing of what you think the numbers are going to be with what you want the numbers to be.

I have also noted the “volumetric force” associated with forecasts. This is the management drive and desire for all forecasts to be either at or exceeding the desired targets. This desire to respond to or please management has a tendency to render forecasts possibly slightly more optimistic than what they might normally be, so that management can smile. But what do you do when the forecast obviously does not meet the desired levels?

You insert what is called a plug into the forecast.

You find a way to provide the management desired levels in the forecast numbers. You forecast the performance that is defined, and then you add in an amount equal to the difference between the goal and the defined forecast, which is undefined. This undefined amount is known as the “plug”.

You are in effect using the verb definition of the word “plug” as a noun. You are essentially filling a hole (a verb) in the forecast with a plug (a thing). It is normally the noun function that is turned into a verb, but here we have the verb function that is turned into a noun.

I guess it is a little thing (a very little thing) but it amuses me, so I have included it.

I have also noted in the past that if a forecast is knowingly presented to management, and it does not at least meet the desired targets, that whoever submits such a lacking forecast could be subject to a significant amount of incremental management attention and assistance. As I also noted this attention and assistance will usually continue until the forecast realigns with the desired targets.

The quicker the plug is inserted into the forecast; the faster management can feel better about the forecast.

I think this may somehow be related to the genesis of the saying “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” This quote is attributed to Captain Bligh, or the HMS Bounty, when told of the forecast associated with how the crew felt about reaching Pitcairn’s Island. It is also apparently quite applicable to a multitude of other management groups.

Plugs were developed in forecasts as a way to create a real and accurate forecast (that potentially does not meet management expectations), yet also provide an acknowledgement of the expectations of management in order to avoid the incremental assistance of management. Plugs are the as yet unidentified portion of a forecast, that will (hopefully) be defined in the future, and will result in the meeting of the desired targets.

This results in the equation:

Actual Forecast + Unidentified Forecast (Plug) = Presented Forecast

Plugs are an acknowledgement that the actual forecast doesn’t meet the desired levels, but the miss to forecast has been identified and is being worked, so that extra management reviews of the forecast (or beatings, as the case may be) are not going to be necessary.

On the surface, this type of forecasting technique sounds great. The actual forecast can be presented to management, as well as the desired number that management wants to see. They get both reality and what they want.

However, if you are going to use the Plug Gambit in a forecast, you need to understand that it is a double-edged sword, and it has a limited shelf life. It is a double-edged sword in that a forecast is being presented to management that is in essence telling them that their desired number is going to be achieved. If it is not, then there will be significant, and now merited management attention visited upon those that delivered such a faulty forecast.

The plug in a forecast also has a limited shelf life in that it is expected to reduce as time passes, and the measurement period draws to a close. An example is that a plug in a forecast during the first month of a three-month quarter might be acceptable. However, the same plug in the third month of a quarter should definitely garner incremental management attention.

So, there you have it. A plug is an artifice, inserted into a forecast in order to avoid (at least temporarily) unwanted incremental management attention associated with the forecast. It is an identified amount, but from an unidentified source. It can be sales to unidentified customers, or cost reduction from unidentified actions.

Once a plug has been inserted into a forecast, it is almost impossible to improve the level of the forecast. This is because as new opportunities are identified, they reduce the amount of the plug, as opposed to actually improving the forecast.

With this in mind, it is my understanding that the latest management approach to limiting the use of plugs in forecast is to in fact request and drive for improvements to any forecast that does contain a plug. This has the effect of requiring double the desired growth as the plug must first be filled before the forecast can be increased. This move by management will no doubt engender some as yet unknown, new methodology for forecasting, as the ongoing escalation associated with business forecasting continues.

This is very similar to the idea that the fastest cheetahs only caught the slowest gazelles. This natural selection meant that only the fastest gazelles (and cheetahs) survived. The ongoing evolutionary race is forecasted to continue going forward on the African Savannah.

However, I think it is pretty obvious that in this example, gazelles do not get to insert plugs into their speed forecast.