Maneuver and Values-Based Leadership in Business

Interactive forum for the exchange of ideas pertaining to: the experiences of the change management consulting and hands-on leadership training firm, Santamaria & Martino LLC and the message of our book, The Marine Corps Way, which applies military strategy and leadership to business

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Sunday, June 05, 2005

Selling Solutions Instead of Pushing Products

Many companies nowadays announce an intention to sell “solutions” but instead continue to push products. Below, we describe how we helped a hardware and software development organization (which we will call “R&D”) leverage its technical expertise to solve the problems that had been “keeping its customers up late at night” – and the promising revenue-generating opportunities that followed.

The Challenge

R&D had developed a product that was so superior to competing offerings that it had, for many years, been able to “push” new releases to a relatively captive customer base. In many cases, relationships with customers could be characterized as adversarial. Development processes, designed for repeatability, were rigid and sequential in workflow; R&D’s focus was alarmingly insular. And talented engineers, who possessed deep technical expertise and sophisticated problem-solving skills, were isolated from customers.

But as R&D sought to grow beyond its core market, into areas where it did not enjoy a dominant position, it realized that it would to need to be “pulled” by customers who were often uncertain of their needs and whose needs seemed to be constantly changing. R&D would have to begin delivering creative solutions that met customers’ underlying needs more accurately than the competition.

How We Solved It

Performed an in-depth competitive analysis and communicated its findings to all members of R&D. We scoured analyst reports, market research reports, company web sites, annual reports, and SEC filings to construct detailed profiles of R&D’s top five competitors: strategy, recent developments, products, strengths, and critical vulnerabilities . After confirming our findings with R&D senior leaders, we posted our competitive analysis on the company intranet and delivered in-person summary presentations to audiences of 15-30 participants – until all 250 members of R&D had attended.

R&D’s previously insular focus has given way to an acute awareness of market challenges and competitive threats. And the “eyes and ears” of the organization are now trained outward, in search of breakthrough opportunities. A wake-up call, indeed.

Matched engineering managers to key customer accounts. With R&D senior leaders, we matched mid-level engineering managers to key customer accounts, provided them with guidance on what to look for, and challenged them to: attend sales calls, establish relationships and ongoing dialogues with their technical counterparts in customer organizations, and perform on-site demonstrations and trials in customer testing labs.

Inspired by our tactic of reconnaissance pull, this initiative has enabled these managers to 1) become direct conduits between their project teams and the customer and 2) lead the rest of R&D to breakthrough market opportunities. In one noteworthy instance, two R&D managers, operating on extended assignment in a customer’s product testing lab, played an instrumental role in the recent closing of a multi-million dollar sale to one of the largest telecom service providers in the U. S. – an account that R&D had not been able to penetrate previously. Not only did the R&D managers “wow” their customer counterparts with their technical prowess, but they we also able to uncover fundamental, underlying needs that R&D’s non-technical sales professionals, who managed the customer relationship at a high level, would not have even considered.

Established a limited number of “virtual R&D partnerships.” Leading by example, the Vice President of R&D assigned himself to select customer accounts. Establishing trust-based “virtual R&D partnerships” that effectively blurred the line between vendor and customer, he and his senior technical counterparts agreed to a) co-design products, b) share development risk and resources, and c) collaboratively lead combined teams comprising engineers from both organizations.

One of these partnerships has already produced impressive results: IP Telephony Magazine’s 2004 Product of the Year and a large backlog of orders.

Lessons Learned and Prescriptions

Customers may not know what their true underlying needs are.

  • Use your technical experts to “dig one level deeper” than you previously thought possible to uncover those needs and rely on them to lead you to breakthrough market opportunities!

Competitive analyses, which are normally only shared among senior management and strategic planning personnel, serve as a powerful “wake-up call” for personnel who are not normally exposed to the “ups and downs” of the market.

  • Share your competitive analyses with everyone!

Senior business managers and mid-level technical personnel in customer organizations have different perspectives.

  • Consider your selling process a team-based effort targeted at multiple levels of a customer organization. Match your salespeople to customers’ senior business managers and your technical experts to customers’ mid-level technical personnel, and then compare notes!

“Virtual R&D partnerships” can be powerful, but only with the right customers.

  • Challenge your senior leaders to establish trust-based development relationships at the highest levels where appropriate!

This approach, which received an overwhelmingly positive response from the engineers involved, does not have to be limited to hardware and software development.

  • Whether they’re “quants” in financial services firms, “creative types” in advertising agencies, or development personnel in brand management companies, free your “doers” from the “back room” and increase their exposure to the customer!

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