Category Archives: Questions

What Can They Sell?

Over time I think I have the opportunity to sit through innumerable Product Line Management (PLM) meetings where various product managers described and extolled the virtues of their specific products. These meetings seemed to follow a similar pattern: The product manager described the product, told everyone how much better it was than anything else they had ever produced, how much better it was than any competitor’s product, how big the market was for the product and how much the company would sell and make from the product. Then they would spend the rest of the meeting describing how the sales team was supposed to sell the product in order to take maximal advantage of all the product had to offer.

What I think I learned over time from attending these meetings was that there invariably was an inverse relationship between the volume of information provided by the product managers regarding how to sell their product, and the actual success that their product resultingly enjoyed in the market. The more they described how they wanted and expected the product to be sold, the worse the chance the product had of ever being successful.

Could this be because we had people who were experts in the product, and not experts in sales, trying to dictate to the people who were experts in sales, how they should go about doing their job?

I would say yes.

Too many times it seems that we have product and technology experts trying to explain why the product or technology in question could and should be sold in ever greater quantities.

Customers are not usually buying the technology. They are buying what the technology delivers. Back in the dim, dark past, both 8-track tapes and cassette tapes delivered portable, recorded music. It was demonstrated that cassette tapes delivered an inferior recording technology, yet they were unarguably viewed as the preferred delivery medium. They were smaller, and hence viewed as more portable than the 8-track competition. In this case it was not the technology that won the decision criteria. It was the portability.

As an aside, I shudder at the thought of an 8-track tape equivalent of the seminal Sony Walkman…..

I am sure that there were probably innumerable 8-track product managers who spent inordinate amounts of time trying to explain to sales people why their product was better than cassettes, and then tried to educate them on how to properly see the superior product.

Believe it or not, I can remember all the way back to 8-tracks and cassette tapes, but only as a childhood user. But contrary to popular opinion, I was not in the business world at that time, so I really cannot confirm what if anything the 8-track product managers did or did not do.

To be fair, sometimes this product and technology driven approach works. Stephen Jobs, who seems to be rapidly ascending in the pantheon of business icons, was one of the notable exceptions to this standard. But even he did not approach his highly technical products (Mac’s, PC’s, iPhones, iPads, iPods, etc.) from a technology advantage point of view.

He made Apple products “cool”.

He relied on designs, user interfaces, displays, etc., as his customer product differentiators. He made them sleek and appealing so that customers would want them. He made them intuitive to operate. He knew that technological advantages would be ephemeral at best, and that design and cache would create a brand loyalty that would continue.

Jobs is famously quoted as saying:

“Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!'” (https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/988332-some-people-say-give-the-customers-what-they-want-but)

But, as I have said, the number of product technologists that can successfully do this has been limited. Even Jobs had to look back more than a half-century to quote Ford on his visionary product success.

So, what should a product technologist do in a situation such as this?

The simple answer, and the first place to start is with the sales team. Ask them what their customers need. Ask them what they can sell. Ask them how what they currently have can be better. Ask them can they sell it.

But just as the product technologists should not be allowed to try to dictate how a product should be sold, sales people should not be allowed to try and dictate what technology or product should be supplied. Henry Ford was probably right in that if he had asked the sales team what was needed, the response would have been a faster horse. The horse was the then best technology of the time. That response would have been technology dependent.

The proper response would have been the desire for the ability to travel faster and farther, with the ability to carry more people and cargo. That was indeed the problem Ford solved.

Too many times product and technologists seem to become too enamored with their own products and technologies. They can get caught up in the idea that the issue is the sales team’s inability to sell the product is a sales issue and not something else. Because the product or technology is so good, it obviously must be related to the sales team either not understanding or not being able to properly sell it.

I have found that by and large, corporate sales teams are usually pretty good at selling. If they were not, neither they nor ultimately the company would be there for long. The competition from other sales teams would see to that. This usually means that if there is some sort of an endemic issue with the sales levels for a product, that it probably has something to do with the product.

Again, one of the best ways to determine this is to ask the sales team. They are incited to sell the product. Their employment and ultimately their livelihood depends on their ability to sell. If they cannot sell the product on their own, chances are that a product technologist will not be able to generate a sales process that will significantly improve the market performance.

It seems that too many times sales teams are viewed as a group that can and will generate orders and sales regardless of products, market conditions, or competition. Sometimes this is the case. Many times, it is obviously not. However, it seems that it is usually the sales team that is the first point of examination if a product or technology is not experiencing the type of success or market reception that the product and technology teams feel that it should.

As I earlier noted, the sales team has the same tendency as the product group, except in reverse. They will almost always try to dictate the technology to use. This input will be based on what has worked in the past. This will result in requests for “faster horses” or “more flexible buggy whips”.

It should be the product team’s responsibility to decode the sales team’s customer product requests, to separate the technology from what is in essence the application. This is what Stephen Jobs was so good at. He could see what the customer would want as being totally separate from any technological constructs or limitations. He would then go about designing and creating the new products to meet these desires.

Unfortunately, Jobs was a pretty unique individual. So, for the rest of the product and technology teams, if you want to get a good gauge on a potential products viability and success in the market, it is probably a good idea to ask the sales team what can they sell.

Sales teams in general rarely lack opinions on what the product needs to be. The key will be separating what they say they need the product to do, as in carry more people and cargo, and go faster and farther, as opposed to what they say they need the product to be, as in a faster horse.

Even Jobs noted that the focus always has to be on the people as opposed to technology, as a recipe for success. He said:

“Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.”
https://blog.hubspot.com/sales/steve-jobs-quotes

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…..

Their Answer

Most of us in the business world these days would be classified as “knowledge workers”. We all have some members on our respective teams that may challenge this point, but for the most part this means that we make our livings and do our jobs predominantly by using our brain power as opposed to our muscle power. It doesn’t take a great deal of effort to sit behind a desk, but it does take a reasonable amount of knowledge to read, understand and appropriately act upon the information contained in a balance sheet or a profit and loss statement. When you think about it, this is interesting on several levels. This would mean that those with the most knowledge, and presumably the most experience would be the most valued employees. It would also mean that when someone asks a question that they would want the answer that is the result of utilizing the best brain power, knowledge and experience available.

Most people would think that this is obviously the case in business. The right answer is usually the best answer. Experience (as opposed to Knowledge) will teach that this is not always the case.

Answers are somewhat like ideas in that everybody has them in one form or another, and they are invariably proud of them. I have also heard that ideas are like children and that your own are always beautiful, whereas those of others are usually judged with a little more skeptical eye. Such is also the case with answers.

We are all usually very proud of the answers that we create (and will hence defend them vigorously from anyone that would have the temerity to posit a different answer), and we are all usually somewhat skeptical of the answers that others create (who will also vigorously defend them from any positions and questions that we have).

It’s funny how that works. We expect everyone to see and accept the beauty in the answers we have created, and we also expect everyone to accept and acknowledge any flaws we may identify in the beauty of the answers that others have created.

This brings me to the topic of “their answers”.

Whenever any question is posed, it is always best to “reflect” as Mark Twain would say, before answering. Is the person asking the question looking for the best, most knowledgeable answer to the question, or are they looking for a ratification of their answer to the question. Are they looking for a solution or are they looking confirmation of their solution.

It is possible that their answer and the best answer are one in the same, but that is probably not probable since after all, it is their answer at this point and not yours.

Another item to be aware of in the “answering the question” scenario is the forum in which the question is asked. This can provide a significant clue as to if a true answer is being sought as opposed to the confirmation of an answer already divined. It is a good bet to assume there is an inverse relationship between the desire for a genuine answer and the size of the audience in which the question is posed.

That means that if someone calls you on the phone and privately asks you a question or your opinion on a topic, they are probably looking for you to provide them your answer. If they send out an email with a wide distribution, or pose the question in some sort of a group or public forum, they are probably looking for you (and possibly others) to provide them “their answer”.

People who provide the desired answer in the group forum will have a tendency to see their response reinforced and those that don’t will usually be challenged to provide supporting logic.

It took me a while to learn this as a new hire directly out of graduate school. In school when you are asked a question you are relatively sure that there is usually a “correct” or “best” answer. It can be open to some opinion, but this is usually the basis of our advanced educational system. We are in essence trained to provide our view of the best answer.

What we miss here is that not everyone provides the same, best or correct answer, even in school. In business there is usually no predefined correct answer that is the accepted response by which all others are measured against. So there is no way to determine who actually had the right answer until the topic under discussion has actually come to pass and the proposed answers can be measured against the reality that has occurred.

This is where experience can come in to play. People who have matriculated up into leadership positions where they are enabled to ask questions have usually gotten to those positions by answering the past questions posed of them correctly more often than not. This past positive reinforcement of their answers is one of the key ingredients associated with the potential defensive reaction to other answers that are not entirely aligned with their own.

Put simply, people who have been right in the past have a tendency to think they will continue to be right in the future. They like trust and support their answers.

Herein lays one of the dichotomies of leadership: sometimes leaders have to temper some of the very traits that enabled them to attain the leadership position. What leaders must recognize is that as they have risen in the management ranks by their very success they have both moved further away from the issues that demand answers, and they have become responsible for a greater breadth of issues that need and demand answers. Most leaders no longer have that direct and intimate interaction with the issues that affect their businesses. They need to learn to rely on those members of their teams that do.

Very few of us get to be right all the time. A leader has to have faith in the answers that they generate, but the leader must also encourage the team to generate the best answers, not their answers. Moreover, the leader needs to know when someone else has generated a better answer. The leader has to learn to step away from generating all the answers (the very process that got them to the leadership position) and learn to trust others (the future leaders) to start generating the answers.

Leaders will always generate their answers. The key is for that leader to accept and expect their teams to potentially generate something other than their answers. It takes a strong leader to ask questions and accept something other than their answers. Letting go of their answers and listening to their team’s answers is the way things can get changed. It is also the way that an organization continues to find the best answers to its questions.

Why Ask Why

Have you ever asked yourself why you are doing what you are doing, right now, in the office? Most of the time we spend in the office seems to be composed of a pleasingly familiar set of activities that we have been doing for quite a while. We continue to do what we have been doing usually because at one time or another it worked on a problem. We received the positive feedback we were looking for and incorporated it into our routine. Not to sound too trite but I think we can all agree that today, and looking forward, the business world does not look anything like routine.

Believe it or not I was too young to really remember the 1960’s, but I have read about them and have watched innumerable movies that were set in the period. This of course makes me an expert on the 1960’s. After all this intensive research, and all the popcorn and sodas associated with watching the research, I think you can distill down an entire decade in American history into a two word sentence:

Question everything.

The reason that I have taken this half century retrospective (gosh, is it really fifty years ago?) is that it may be time to dust off the “Oldie but Goldie” catchphrase and start ruthlessly applying it to business.

It is easy to start down a simple road in business. The problem is that almost no road remains simple, or straight. There are always twists and turns, and probably even a few loop-the-loops in every business road.

I’m sorry; I got carried away with my metaphors there. I’ll try to keep that sort of behavior to a minimum.

My point is that every business needs to continually ask itself why is it doing what it is doing. Just because it started down what it thought was the right road a while ago doesn’t mean that it is still the right road today. Again, this is pretty basic stuff, but when it all gets boiled down to the basics, business is really pretty simple.

Business is about customers.

Now despite what the courts or politicians may rule or claim, businesses are not people. I think it is much the contrary, in fact I think it is the opposite: People are business. The business can’t ask itself why it is doing what it is doing, but the people can.

This brings us back to the comfortable routine that the majority of people in business have day in and day out, going down the road that they started out on some time in the past. The easy path, the path of least resistance is to continue down the path that we are on. A plan, program or model may have been put in place and work begun. Chances are that time has passed. At the risk of propellering off into rampant triteness again, if time has passed, chances are that times have changed.

The only real constant in business is customers.

When we begin to ask ourselves why we are doing what we are doing, any question we ask that does not have the word “customer” in it, and does not focus on how to bring value to the customer is probably a wrong question to ask. It will be this single minded approach to how we address changing what we do and why we do it that will enable businesses to navigate the necessary changes in directions, and different roads that must be traversed.

Small businesses are usually held up as models of outward facing, customer oriented businesses. I think this is probably correct. I also think that this is probably not due to any deliberate focus or business magic. I think the reason that small businesses focus on the customer is because they don’t have anything else to focus on. They are small businesses. By definition they do not have much in the way of internal infrastructures, or any of the other trappings of large businesses. They only have an idea or product and customers, so by default that is all they focus on.

It is usually not until a business becomes large and somewhat successful that it begins to focus on things other than customers. This is also the appropriate time to start asking the difficult questions. If you ask yourself the “why are you doing this / is it for the customers’ benefit” question, and you either can’t answer it or associate it with a customer value, then you need to start looking deeper at what you are doing.

Companies seem to begin to lose their way, and their customer focus when they start to concentrate on better ways to do things instead of doing things better. It’s a subtle but important difference. Focusing on a better way to do things means you are shifting your attention to how you are doing something. Focusing on doing things better means you are still focused on what you are doing.

In most instances (but admittedly probably not all instances) your customers will not be particularly interested in how you do something. They will definitely be interested in the result of what you have done. To put it another way, do you really care how a company builds a car? If the company uses all manual processes or a fully automated production line, does that materially affect your buying decision on the car?

Speaking only personally at this point, I don’t remember asking the car salesman those questions the last time I bought a car. I was more interested in the resulting product, its safety, reliability, efficiency, and most importantly if I thought I would look cool driving it.

This again is a good time to bring us back to asking ourselves why we are doing what we are doing. We need to always focus on and keep in mind if what we are doing is providing value to the customer, or if we are doing it for some other reason. Are we internally focused on our own systems, programs and processes and trying to hopefully provide ourselves value or are we focused on improving what we provide to the customer and providing them more value. It may sound a little strange but we need be relentless and ruthless when it comes to customer focus and what we are doing. If we don’t, when we take our eyes and minds off that customer for whatever period of time while we focus on some internal aspect of how we do things, someone else who is focusing on that customer will take that customer away.

The next time you walk into your office and begin your normal start of the day routine, you probably ought to ask yourself “why”.

When in Doubt….Ask


Customers are funny things. They need your product and they want your help. On the other side of the equation, you want their business. On the surface this would seem to be a relatively simple situation where the solution is obvious. You provide them the solution they want, and everyone is happy. Right?


The reality seems to be that it rarely works out that way.


My experience has been that customers know exactly what they DON’T want when they see it. They can tell you exactly where the provided solution falls short of their expectation, but only after it has been provided. By then it is too late. They are dissatisfied with the solution, and you are in recovery mode. It doesn’t matter that it is precisely what they asked for, or even demanded as part of their contract.  


Customers seem to have a very hard time defining the necessary aspects of what they want to the level where the provided solution can easily satisfy them. There is an art to getting the customer to provide you the desired, and in many instances needed information to enable you to satisfy their needs. In many instances this is because the customer is not aware of, or does not know all of the variables associated with their specific business need.


So what do you do? You start asking questions.


We have all heard the old adage: “There are no dumb questions.” This is wrong. There are an incredible number of dumb questions. If you happen to ask enough of them you can and will destroy your credibility with the customer and put your deal at risk.


On the other hand, you cannot make the customer fact finding process appear to be an interrogation. Each customer feels they are, and in most cases truly are unique. Template and check list question approaches need to be used with caution as they have a tendency to remove the individual and personal relations ship that a customer requires. It also makes them feel as though they have been “sold” to and you are now just filling out the required forms.


I recently read a book, “The Sales Messenger”, by Mary Anne Davis, where she actually addresses the art of questioning a customer. The idea was not to immediately start “selling” or interrogating, but to engage them in more of a give and take proposition. Obviously this is something all sales people want, but is much easier said than done. She did get me thinking about some of her ideas and particularly the words and approaches she uses.


Ideas such as asking your customers for “opinions” and not “decisions” as a way of creating a discussion where the customer can be induced to provide more information they may not have even known they had. We are always in a hurry to get a customer to decide if they want “this” or “that”, when it is possible that ultimately neither will end up satisfying the customer.


Opinions draw pictures, where decisions select from provided options. Unless you have all the information that has enabled you to provide the correct solution / option to that specific customers needs, the idea of looking for customer “advice”, “help” and “experience” in creating solutions for that customer can only help improve the final outcome for everyone. Asking the customer for their “beliefs” on what is important and their “priorities” on what they expect help to draw the customer deeper into the desired solution, as well as draw out the deeper information necessary to create it.


The book also brought out the negative or “fighting” words that we all use. These words have a tendency to appear when the customer’s opinion or advice does not completely match our own. When this happens we usually use words like “but…” and “however…” These words will cause contention with someone you are trying to work with.


We need to debunk another old saying here: “The customer is always right.” That is not the case. If it were, every customer would be satisfied with every purchase they have ever made. Have you ever met anyone that could say they were happy with every purchase they ever made?


Healthy contention is a good thing. It will usually result in the creation of a stronger solution. The idea is not to conflict with your customers opinion. If you believe there are aspects of the needed solution that are not reflected in your customer’s opinion, do not directly challenge them. Instead, ask them a challenging question. Get them to think about your point without conflicting with their point.


As I said, customers are funny things. I thought that the ideas in the “The Sales Messenger” on how to get the information that they need and want to give you, but may not necessarily know they have, were good. The connotation of the words that you use and the approach that you use them in are key. The creation of healthy contention versus customer conflict helps to create a stronger overall solution.


It also might end up helping make your customer more satisfied with their decision to partner with you, and more satisfied with the solution you provide them.