Category Archives: Sales

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

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.

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.

Future Jobs

This is a tough topic to tackle without sounding too trite or stale. But I now have children entering the job market and I have been continuing to do some networking with several people who are in a job search mode so it is on my mind. As usual I got to thinking about where to go and how to position for the jobs of the future. With the continual drive for cost reductions and all the talk about bringing certain jobs back on shore (as others continue to go off-shore), is there truly a way to future proof what you do for a living? I don’t know for sure, but as usual I do have a few thoughts on the topic.

It must be acknowledged and accepted that the rules of the game are changing. We must adapt or it probably will not end well. There will be those who will stubbornly hold out the hope for a return to the days when this country could manufacture and build its own products, and people could earn a living doing it. This was an ideal and golden time, but as we have all seen, there may be scattered exceptions, but by and large that economic structure has gone.

I think this was only the start. Almost every role that can be defined within an organization, can be subject to the same risk of off-shoring, out-sourcing, or whatever description you may choose to use for being moved to a cheaper labor oriented area. Production was moved off-shore because the labor was cheaper. The quality may not have been as good initially, but that can be and for the most part has been rectified. We all wanted the cheapest products possible, because they were good for the bottom line.

We have already seen instances where financial and accounting functions are being out-sourced and off-shored in the name of reducing costs. These are largely looked at as internal functions. They are usually associated with the overhead costs and functions, and as we know, everyone wants to reduce overhead. There are many people across the globe who are trained in the financial and accounting disciplines that perform these functions cheaper than they can be performed here.

We have already seen many instances where Research and Development, what was once a cornerstone of our growth engine, have been moved off-shore to lower cost countries. It seems that there are also many places with smart people who can write code and create products, with many of them working for significantly lower costs than here.

We have also seen the relocation and / or reduction of some of the Human Resource functions to other locations. Many of the repetitive steps associated with the simple recruiting and support functions can be and have been moved to lower cost countries. There has also been an explosive growth in the utilization of self-help and web portals as replacements for actual people.

Service and support is also similarly questionable. It is possible that this trend specifically associated with service may be reversing, but it is still highly probable that when you call for help or support on many products, your call is directed to an off-shore, low cost call center somewhere else in the world. People who predominantly talk on the phone as a function of their job, can have a phone to talk on in just about any low-cost country.

So, against this type of cost cutting and low cost country focus, what do we do for a living going forward?

I think for starters focus on one word: Customers.

The majority of business functions and disciplines that are at risk in being moved to low cost countries do not interface with customers.

Yes, I know that call centers and service have moved off shore and they deal with customers. And again, by and large customers don’t like it. It has been surveyed and noted as a major customer dissatisfier when it comes to support from vendors. And if given a choice almost every customer would prefer to deal with someone in their own time zone and their own country when it comes to support.

As I said, companies are recognizing what their customers want and this trend may be slowing, if not reversing as some of these service related positions return on-shore.

One of the inviolate axioms of business to business commerce is that “People buy from People”. It used to be the same for business to consumer commerce, but the internet seems to be changing that for commodity type transactions. I’ll get to that part a little bit later.

Selling will always be a function that requires direct customer interface. It will also invariably require face to face exchanges between the seller and the customer. In short, it cannot be off-shored easily, if at all.

As we continue to evolve to a service oriented economy, and as products continue to become more and more complex as well as more commoditized and interchangeable, having people who have the ability communicate specific value propositions, and more importantly be able to sell those value propositions in the new economy will be at a premium.

On the reverse side of the selling to customers, will be the implementation of the complex products and services that have been sold. It doesn’t matter if it is a good or service that has been sold. This brings us to the operations team. The reality is that most customers will not accept a “Do It Yourself” approach to the implementation of the good or service that they have purchased. They are usually going to want the company that sells it, to also be the one that puts it in.

Again, the direct customer interface from the operations team on the implementation of the customer’s purchase will be a key to that customer’s satisfaction, and potential future purchases. It can’t be off-shored and it can’t be minimized in its importance. The best product in the world can be sold, but if it is not implemented well, the customer will not be satisfied. This will be the case with both product and service implementations. Having good customer interfacing operations teams will also be a non-negotiable requirement for the future.

I have looked at specific individual customer interfacing roles up to this point, but what about broader multiple customer roles, such as Marketing?

For the most part in the past I have considered marketing an overhead function with a two-drink minimum. This is said with just a little tongue in cheek. However, if we note that individual customer interfaces are important then it is not too far a leap to expect that individual markets are important as well. Even though there is much written about the “global” economy, I don’t think that goods and services can be positioned and marketed the same way in Canada as they are in Brazil.

No one in Brazil will know what a Tuque is, and I have met very few in Canada who understand the importance of a good Caipirinha. Expecting one marketing approach to work in both regions will probably not be a good recipe for success. I do not think there will be a good or reasonable substitute for local market knowledge, cultural awareness, presence and positioning.

I suppose that the same could be said about lawyers and the specific legal requirements of each market. However, the less said about lawyers, the happier I find myself to be.

So where does that leave the organizational and business jobs of the future?

I think that it will be those outward facing, and customer interfacing roles that will be the jobs of the future. I don’t believe that customers will stand for the out-sourcing and off-shoring of them. It is the personal relationships and the trust that is built by direct customer interface that is the basis of a successful business relationship. There may come a time where that changes, but that may be in the “next” generation of business.

That means that the internal facing business and organizational roles are at risk as a function the eternal drive for lower costs. Accounting, Finance, HR (some of the functions), Research and Development and Production / Manufacturing, all to one level of success or another can be and have been sent to lower cost countries.

What is also interesting to me is that historically a little more than forty percent of CEOs that are hired come out of the finance discipline. In good times this number percentage goes down as growth is a focus and in tougher times it goes up as the bottom line takes on even greater importance. Many others come from the accounting and engineering functions as well. My point is, as many of these internal accounting, finance and engineering functions get out-sourced, where will the future leaders come from?

If these entry level (and other) types of roles and positions are sent elsewhere, where will the future leaders get their starts. It is in these roles that we learn and gain experience. If the roles aren’t there to provide the experience and jumping off points, are companies also off-shoring the development structures that the future leaders have used to get started?

This could mean that in due time, future leaders would predominantly come from those countries that the jobs were off-shored to.

The Short Horizon

As the pace of business continues to accelerate, there seems to be one aspect of the business process model that is struggling to keep up: The Business Case. There was a time where capital expenditures were looked upon as long term investments by the business. The life-cycle and pay-back processes, as well as the accounting amortization of these investments, were expected to last years, and in some instances, even decades. The average business case became attuned to these norms.

But those days are long gone. As the speed with which technology has changed has continued, by necessity the business case used to justify the new or incremental investment has needed to become shorter. If Moore’s law of eighteen-month capability doubling (it was actually Intel executive David House, who predicted that chip performance would double every 18 months. Gordon Moore, for whom the law is named, was the co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, and whose 1965 paper described a doubling every two years in the number of transistors per integrated circuit was the basis for the coining of the “law”) is to be believed, then the asymptote for the length of an acceptable business case should approach that eighteen month to two year limit as well.

That doesn’t mean that a product’s useful life is only limited to eighteen months. I think quite the contrary. There are aspects of the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) that have been in place for more than fifty years, and are still providing beneficial service to the communications carriers and their subscribers alike.

On the other hand, people are known to line up and over-night camp out every eighteen to twenty-four months in order to be the first to get the next generation of the Apple iPhone.

It appears that customers who are being asked for either capital or operational expenditures associated with technology oriented products, are driving their partners and their vendors to ever more rigorous and aggressive value propositions and rates of return. This is the genesis of the short horizon business case.

The simplest definition of value is how much money is made or saved over what period of time. The more you make, or the more you save over a given period, the better the value. In the past it was acceptable for a business case to extend out over a long enough time period as to show an acceptable return. If the initial business case for the sale didn’t make sense for one period of time, it was easy just to lengthen out the time frame until it did.

What appears to be happening is that as the rate of technological based product change has continued at the speed of Moore’s Law, the period that a customer is willing to measure value has shrunk. Business cases still need to show the customer value, they now must do it in far less time. The tried and true form of extending the business case period to make the value and pay back equations work is now gone. Customers will no longer accept it, and are driving for shorter and shorter review periods.

I think there are several factors in addition to technical obsolescence that are helping to drive a short horizon on the business case:

As each new generation of technology arrives it almost exponentially drives down the (residual) value of previous generations. I think it is no secret that one generation old technology is viewed as old and disadvantaged, and that two-generation old technology is probably approaching the zero value state. We have all seen this in our consumer based technology purchases as well. Products get old so quickly that we have developed a disposable attitude toward them. With Personal computers now going for a few hundred dollars, what is the value of a two-generation old computer? What was once repaired and retained is now simply expected to be replaced.

How would consumers (and manufacturers) react if the same logic was applied to say, automobiles and two to three model year old car was considered almost valueless?

We also see (comparatively) decreasing operational returns as each new technology generation is introduced. This means that as each new product gets smaller and more efficient the value of generating operational savings associated with the previous generation of product also tends to get devalued.

The idea of saving something with what you have is not as attractive as the possibility of saving more with something new. I guess this is what they call “Marketing”.

I think one of the final evolution’s of the short horizon business case is the “Cloud”. I am sure everyone has heard of this thing. It’s in all the magazines.

One of the many ways that manufacturers and vendors have adapted to the evolving business case rules is to try and remove both the obsolescence associated with technology and to more closely align the delivered solution with the customer’s need. The idea being that if a customer only needs a four-unit solution but the technology only comes in six or eight unit increments, there is a delivered solution miss-match.

By delivering a function from the cloud as opposed to a product based solution, the vendor has effectively removed technology obsolescence from the customer’s decision process, as well as matched the required amount of solution with the required amount of need.

The net result is a much shorter period needed to achieve the required business case. Customer purchases can be made in smaller increments, which in turn only require smaller pay-backs. Future product purchases and existing product obsolescence are removed from the customer’s decision criteria as the customer is now only purchasing the product’s function, not the product itself. The obsolescence issue, and all the other costs associated with operation of the product are now retained by the vendor (and should be built into their business case).

The continued drive for more value has driven customers and business cases to the short horizon. Capital for technology can no longer be viewed as a long-term investment. It must be judged and justified by how quickly it can pay back on its cost and the relative business value it generates. It is this drive for better business returns that continues to reduce the time scale associated with the business case.

This trend would appear to potentially be a seed cause for future changes to the way business is conducted. On one hand it will continue to make the sale of capital based technology products more difficult. By demanding shorter pay-back and business case periods, customers are in essence expecting lower prices for products, and higher value delivered. That is a demanding and difficult environment for any supplier.

It should also continue to drive product virtualization and the Cloud as ways for suppliers to retain costs and risks, and hence remove them from the customer’s business case. This will continue to be an interesting market, but not all technologies and products may be potential candidates for the cloud.

It could also be argued that a potentially unexpected result of the drive to align business cases with product life cycles could be the reversal of Moore’s Law. It has long been expected that there is some sort of limit to the capacity doubling process. It has been going on for over fifty years. There are recent articles in no less than the MIT Technology Review, Ars Technica, and The Economist (to name just a few) that are now stating that Moore’s Law have in fact run its course.

And this may also be of benefit to business. If customers want to align their capital business case length with the product’s life cycle, and the current eighteen to twenty-four month life cycle of the product makes this increasingly difficult, then one of the solutions may be to lengthen the product life cycle to more than twenty-four months. If there truly is a link between business case length and product life cycle, then this could be a possible solution.

This will be an interesting cause and effect discussion. Is the potential slowing of Moore’s Law going to cause the reversing of the short horizon trend associated with customer’s business cases, or is the demand for short horizon business cases going to accelerate the slowing of Moore’s Law due to business necessities? Either way, customers are requiring businesses to change the way they put together the business case for capital technology sales, and that is having a significant effect on how business can successfully get done.

Products and Markets

Good sales people only need a couple of things to be very successful: the right products and the right markets. The corollary here is that even with these things, bad sales people will not be successful. That’s why they are referred to as bad sales people. The question then arises: How can you tell if you have bad sales people, or the wrong products, or are in the wrong market? This is a set of questions that senior management must always answer every time a sales target is missed.

I’ll deal with the sales person discussion first.

Sales people are invariably success and compensation driven. They are also usually in a leveraged compensation type of role. That means that the level of their total compensation is directly associated with the amount of sales that they generate. Sales people are essentially risking part of their compensation, and betting on themselves in that they will be able to not only achieve their sales goals but also exceed them in order to maximize their compensation. Think about that for a minute.

People in marketing don’t take this risk and have their total compensation directly linked to the number or the success of the parking programs and campaigns that they create. People in research and development don’t take this risk and have their compensation directly linked to the number of products, the time it takes to develop products or the customer or market applicability of the products they develop. Accountants don’t take this risk and have their compensation directly linked to the quantity of numbers they crunch or the time it takes them to crunch them.

They may be indirectly linked in the form of management reviews, ratings, and bonuses, but for the most there is not the quid pro quo defined “if you do this, we will pay you that” sort of compensation relationship that you find in sales.

What this usually means is that when viewed over reasonable time frames, sales people are either successful (achieving or exceeding their sales targets and getting paid lots of money, receiving both recognition and rewards as compensation) or they don’t get to be sales people for very long. They can’t afford to be bad sales people because they won’t make enough to survive. They usually either thrive, or don’t survive.

So despite what every investment prospectus may say to the contrary (past performance is no indication or guarantee of future success), if the sales people have been successful in the past, and they are still sales people, it is a pretty good indication that they can be expected to continue to be good sales people.

What is interesting is that despite this knowledge, most management will immediately examine and possibly blame the sales team should each new sales objective not be met. I think that this is because it is the easiest approach. After all, we all know that sales can’t really be that difficult, and that sales also comes with a two drink minimum for the cover charge.

What I’m going to briefly look at here, is what do you do when you have a proven sales force, but you aren’t achieving the market success that you are looking for. That means that you need to be looking at your products and your markets.

Let’s look at the next easiest factor to review, the market.

For this analysis I am going to pick something that we can all probably agree is a good product, that being energy efficiency. It can be an actual product that reduces energy consumption. It can be a service that results in reduced energy consumption. In this analysis it is a hypothetical product that has a definable value in the amount of energy consumption that it reduces.

So in what market would this energy efficiency product do well?

That market would not be, as one might erroneously think, the market where the most energy is consumed, and hence the greatest savings could be generated. If that were the case all products of this type would be very successful in North America and the US specifically since it is one of the biggest consumers of energy in the world. While there continues to be a growing interest in energy conservation, the success of energy conservation products in the US has not been commensurate with the energy consumption market opportunity. In fact, energy consumption has increased over the period of time, not decreased. This is due to the relatively low cost per unit of energy in the US.

The greatest market opportunity would more correctly be identified as the market where there is the highest cost per unit of energy consumption.

Going a little further with the market size versus unit cost example, the average cost of a kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity in the US is approximately $0.10. The cost of the same kWh of electricity in Brazil is approximately $0.165, or almost 65% more expensive. That means the value of the energy savings per dollar spent on the energy conservation product will be 65% greater in Brazil than it will be in the US.

There are approximately five times as many kWh per capita consumed in the US as there are in Brazil, making the US by far the bigger market opportunity, but the value per unit savings in Brazil make it the more attractive market (at least initially) for energy savings products. When it comes time to create a business case where money is being spent in order to reduce future expenditures (save money in the future), greater savings will always equate to a better business case.

In short, it will be more difficult (currently, from a financial business case point of view) to sell energy conservation products in the US than it will be to do so in Brazil. From this point of view, the better market would be Brazil.

At a very coarse and high level this is the type of market analysis that needs to occur for all types of products when preparing to enter markets, as well as when going back and analyzing why a market objective may not have been met. It answers the question is the market the right fit for the product. It also clearly points out that one size will not actually fit all.

In looking at the final scenario, we will assume that the again we have a competent sales force and in this case have identified a market that we wish to address. Again there will need to be almost the same product versus market analysis done in order to identify if there is a proper fit.

If we use the same energy conservation product example from above, we see that while the US is a massive energy consumer the relatively low cost per unit of energy versus the rest of the world makes it a relatively poor market for energy conservation products. In other words, energy conservation products do not do as well in the US because US energy consumers (both corporations and individuals) can afford to not conserve (as much) due to the low costs per unit of energy used.

This would mean that for a global energy conservation product to be successful in the US market it would have to attack the market from some direction other that specifically based on the value of the energy saved. It would have to take the more difficult road of trying to quantify the value other “soft” benefits associated with the product.

These types of soft benefits could include but not be limited to: Attractive designs (Apple is a master at this), incremental functionalities (can the energy conservation product do other things besides save energy – a smart phone analogy), social responsibility (casting the product in the “greater good” social category versus solely in a corporate fiduciary role), and corporate leadership (the business case may not be great now, but in the future when energy costs are expected to increase it will be, and then you will be ahead of the curve). I am sure there are many others.

As noted these are soft benefits in that it is difficult if not impossible to define their value. That is not to say they don’t have value. They do. It is just difficult to quantify. However, price is always readily definable. And it is always difficult to sell a product with a definable price, but not a commensurately definable value.

If you find sales people capable of selling a product with a definable price, but not a commensurately definable value, you should do all you can to keep them.

Management will invariably first look at the sales teams when sales objectives are not met. A significant reason for this is the difficulty in looking at, or worse, trying to change markets or products. I do think in most instances it is the specifics associated with the markets and the products that will need to be addressed when sales targets are missed, as opposed to replacing sales people.

I have found that most of the time issues arise with obtaining sales goals because of the desire to sell a specific product into the wrong market, or the desire to sell the wrong product into the desired market. If the product is not readily modifiable, other more receptive markets need to be identified. If the market is the target, then the product needs to be modifiable to meet the specific needs of that market.

The sales force is indeed important, but it has always been about products and markets.

Arguing With Customers

If you have dealt with customers for any length of time you have probably run into a situation that is similar to this: You have a perfect solution to a customer’s problem. It can involve a product or a service. It can be minimally disruptive or invasive to their organization. It has a good business case and a quick pay-back for the customer. There is only one problem: The customer doesn’t see it your way and wants to do something else that is far less effective, and wants you as the vendor to foot the bill for their solution’s lost efficiency.

And now the argument starts.

The phrase “The customer is always right” was originally coined in 1909 by Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge’s Department Store in London. It is a mantra that we in business have all had drummed into our collective heads since we left school and started working. So what do we do when we know in our heart of hearts that in this particular instance the customer is most assuredly wrong, or at the very least not as right as they could be?

I think the above quote might be an edited version of Selfridge’s original idea. There is absolutely no proof of the following, but I still feel the original quote probably went along the lines of something like the following:

“Depending on who has last spoken to the customer, and what they personally believe, what time of day it is, what they ate for dinner last night and the recent incidence of sun spot activity, the customer may be misguided, misinformed, misunderstood to the point of being potentially ignorant of all relevant information associated with the topic, but they are always the customer, and therefore that makes them right”.

In case you are wondering, I added the “sun spot” part myself, just for extra impact.

I think you can see why Mr. Selfridge condensed down the original concept into his now famous quote. The original was a bit of a mouth full and probably wasn’t as customer friendly an idea as he was trying to convey. I’m only guessing here as 1909 was a long time ago and Mr. Selfridge is no longer around to confirm or correct my position.

The point still remains however. Since the precept is that the customer is always right, we probably ought to rephrase the question to: What do we do when the customer has not arrived at the correct right answer?

One thing you can be certain of is that there will be no shortage of people trying to tell a customer what to think. Between you, your competitors, the customer’s internal peers and management, family members and pets, just about everyone will be expressing a view as to what the customer’s proper direction should be. Against this type of backdrop, it is easy to see why a direct confrontation or argument with a customer will not be the most beneficial course of action.

The simplest step in this situation is to check and see if that despite the fact that the customer wants something that is different from your most efficient, effective and elegant of solutions, are they correct? As rare as it may seem there are recorded incidences of customers actually knowing what they want and being correct. It does happen more than one might suspect.

If you can prove to your own and your management’s satisfaction that what the customer wants is indeed a wrong solution, then the next step is to determine who the solution is wrong for. Is it wrong for the customer in that it does not adequately solve their problem, or is it wrong for you the vendor in that it for whatever reason it cannot be defined as good business.

Good business is usually defined as a solution that can be provided (as opposed to one that cannot be provided or does not exist), can be provided profitably and within the time-frames desired by the customer. If the vendor cannot provide the solution or cannot provide the customers desired solution profitably, it is probably not good business.

Unfortunately, there are many recorded instances where despite knowing better, vendors have agreed to and accepted business that does not meet the “good business” hurdle as defined above. These not good business decisions are normally defined as “strategic business” opportunities. A good company can normally stand only so many of these types of “strategic” deals.

If the desired solution is in fact the wrong solution for the customer a logical argument can occur. If it can be empirically proven to the customer that the solution does not solve their problem, then a direct approach can be taken. Empirical proof usually involves numbers and financial comparisons, and not so much on the assumptions and estimates. When it comes to assumptions and estimates, unless there is some very good backing data, who is to say that yours are better than anyone else’s, especially the customer’s?

If you can show a customer numbers, and prove that something else might be a better solution, or save them more money, or (more difficultly) provide them increased value, then the pending argument rapidly just becomes a discussion.

If it turns out that the customer desired solution is wrong for the vendor, then the argument gets a little more involved. While much has been written about solution quality and functionality and such things, it seems that in these days of rapid product and solution turnover, price is the primary driving customer decision factor. If there is a vendor profitability issue associated with a customer desired solution, modifying or increasing the solution price is rarely an acceptable approach to resolution.

When I have encountered this situation, and after ascertaining that no amount of logical discussion is going to change the customer’s mind, I have found it best to at least partially change sides in the argument. By that I mean that instead of pitting one solution against another in some sort of winner take all sweepstakes, I have tried to decompose the customer’s preferred solution into its component parts to see which parts may be congruent with my solution, and focus on those as the opportunity to discuss.

Everyone likes to feel that they are right, and by focusing on the points where there is agreement instead of the overall solution where there is not, a vendor can focus on the aspects of the opportunity that can provide them “good business” while accepting that the customer wants a different solution. This approach is essentially the de-scoping of the aspects of the overall solution that cannot be profitably provided. It highlights where there is complete agreement between the customer and the vendor and where there is not. It also clearly, but not in a confrontational manner quantifies what the cost and value of the disagreement is.

I learned some time ago that all mutually healthy dealings between customers and vendors occasionally requires either party to tell the other “no”. Customers can very easily do this by simply selecting another vendor to fulfill their needs. This approach can be a little drastic but it is definitely guaranteed to get a vendor’s attention very quickly. Vendors on the other hand can only afford to act in a similar manner, i.e. firing a customer, if they have the entire market for the desired good or service cornered where they are the only supplier, or they risk such behavior at their own peril.

By breaking down the customer’s desired solution into its component parts it is possible to tell the customer both “yes” and “no” at the same time. A vendor can say yes to what makes sense, and no to what doesn’t.

When there is contention between a customer and a vendor over a solution, look at the subsets of the total solution where there is agreement, instead of the total offered solution where there is not. This approach serves the twin functions of communicating to the customer where the issues are with their desired solution as well keeping focused on the primarily profitable business that is beneficial to the company.

Just be prepared for the phrase “You have to take the bad with the good”, but that will be another discussion. At least at that point you are negotiating.

A Race to the Bottom

I had a phone call drop the other day. It wasn’t a big deal. In this wireless world I think we have all had phone calls drop. We also get static, interference and garbled messages, but hey, we’ve gotten used to it. The difference was that this call wasn’t a wireless call. It was a call using a land line desk phone. Come to think of it, having a land line call drop isn’t such an uncommon event these days either. I have commented in the past that not quite good enough is now good enough. I think this is just a symptom of what I call a race to the bottom.

Benjamin Franklin once said:

“The bitter taste of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten”

I think for a very long time this was the case. It was accepted that there was a trade-off between quality and price. However it seems that times have changed. What was once true in a handmade, almost artisanal world does not seem to apply quite so steadfastly in the modern, mass production, readily interchangeable, short life span high technology world of today.

It used to be that you could get things cheaper but they invariably didn’t last as long as the more expensive better made items. This was a period when it took a while to make just about anything, and it was a requirement that it last based on what it cost to acquire. Back then when you bought something you expected to have it for a while. You expected quality almost directly in proportion to the price that was paid. You paid less, you expected less. If it wasn’t high quality you were going to have to live with that mistake for a while. As a manufacturer your reputation rested on every product you made.

I think the new approach today is to ask what is the best “relative” quality available at the absolute lowest price. Now it seems that the search is for as much quality as is obtainable at the lowest price. It is a somewhat subtle change in the relationship between price and quality, but I think it is an important one. I think in today’s world Ben Franklin would be asking what the minimum quality level is that can be endured at the target price point.

We are no longer buying quality. We are buying price and hoping for quality.

I guess that there still is a relationship of sorts between quality and price, it’s just that now it seems almost impossible to up-sell a customer (raise the price) based on quality. If you are not the cheapest, your chances of gaining the sale are probably going to be severely hindered by the other product that is the lowest price. Customers for the most part seem to view products as readily substitutable with each being able to perform essentially the same functions as the next, hence the “why pay more” approach.

I think it can also be traced somewhat to the public perception in the change of relative life expectancy the products. The shorter the life expectancy of a product, the quicker the next generation or replacement product hits the market, the more it seems that there is a tolerance for lower quality. It came out quick so a few bugs are always expected initially. As we have moved into the disposable high technology world, it seems the more tolerant the market is of lower quality, as long as the product is available for cheap.

Just over fifty years ago Gordon Moore noticed that technological capabilities doubled roughly every eighteen months. It seemed everything got either twice as fast or half as small on a very regular basis. This observation strangely enough became known as Moore’s Law. It basically ushered in the era of short product life cycles and rapid product replacement.

I have mentioned several times that I am probably a dinosaur. I remember (vaguely) my parents color television. All twenty three inches of that then massive cathode rate tube screen. Wow, what a monster. I also remember the repairman actually coming out to the house once or twice to repair it. Of course this was across the approximately fourteen years of its operational life in their living room.

Now televisions are huge with many larger than sixty or seventy inches. Unfortunately they are only expected to last a few years. Then they either break and must be replaced since the cost of repair is now so prohibitively high as compared to a new one, or are just replaced by the newer level of product technological advancement.

My point here is that while the absolute cost of the product may have come down in both real and time adjusted costs, I don’t think the total costs across the sample period have actually been reduced. In other words, the total cost of ownership across fourteen years and two repair visits is probably far less than the three to four televisions that might be expected to be purchased across the same time period today. However, it is only fair to note that who can say what the capabilities of a television will be in fourteen years at its current rate of evolution.

It seems again if you have a short technology cycle, short life expectancy, readily substitutable, mass production product, such as televisions, or smart phones, or personal computers, or just about every other electronic platform in the market today, quality is not the concern. Price is. And when that happens it looks like the race to the bottom is on.

The reason that I have gone into such belabored detail on what is obviously a consumer goods example is that it has been the bellwether for the business world as well. Let’s get back to my dropped call scenario.

For the longest time the communications infrastructure was a source of pride. I seem to recall when “five nines” of reliability, no down time, and always being able to place a call were proudly pointed to aspects of both the public and private communications systems. You could not get a higher quality infrastructure.

So you didn’t. You got a cheaper infrastructure. It now experiences issues and outages that in the past were unthinkable. And over time people have accepted it. Quality was sacrificed for price. You don’t hear anybody asking “Can you hear me now?” We all seem to be okay with it. We seem to have lost the drive and desire for “better” and have just settled for “cheaper”.

I don’t know if it is the consumerist behavior driving the business world in this direction or the business world drive for newer and cheaper technology that is stoking the consumerist behavior. As the apparent acceptance by customers for low quality continues, even though there seems to be an inordinate amount of business focus on creating the “relative” quality levels in technology products, price becomes an ever greater decision criterion. This trend can only benefit the low cost producers and providers in the market.

When quality is addressed as a cost as in the “cost of low quality” as it is measured today in business, instead of a generated value to the customer, then I think the bottom may be in sight. Feature, form, fit, function and quality no longer seem to be viable differentiators in the eyes of customers. Price and its financial partner, cost, now seem to be all that matters.

Maybe Ben Franklin was right in his time. I think Kurt Vonnegut may be right in this time. He was the one that said:

“In this world, you get what you pay for.”

The only issue now, is that we don’t seem to be willing to pay for it.