In keeping with our fortnightly 'controversial question' series, we offered a large number of suppliers (both in Australia and in other parts of the world) this question:
For an end-user, selecting a new piece of 'kit' (be it software, hardware or services) rapidly becomes a juggling act between price, performance, features and human relationships (and possibly more). How do you, as a supplier, 'maximise' yourself to the customer?"
Something we have discussed in the past is the concept of the "Trusted Advisor" and this writer has had numerous discussions with one of the leading proponents of this concept - Charles H. Green who founded a business of the same name and has published books on the topic. According to the book Green co-wrote, "…the advisor places a higher value on maintaining and preserving the relationship itself than on the outcomes of the current transaction, financial or otherwise. Often, the advisor will make a substantial investment in the client (without a guarantee of return) before the relationship does, in fact, generate any income, let alone any profit."
The book goes on to identify ten important attributes of a trusted advisor. A couple of them are germane to this discussion.
1. Have a predilection to focus on the client, rather than themselves.
- Enough self-confidence to listen without pre-judging
- Enough curiosity to inquire without supposing an answer
- Willingness to see the client as a co-equal in a joint journey
- Enough ego strength to subordinate their own ego
2. Focus on the client as an individual, not as a person fulfilling a role
So, with that in mind, we were eager to hear the thoughts of a wide variety of industry players - 29 individuals responded to the call out.
In his usual sparkling form Garrett O'Hara, Principal Technical Consultant at Mimecast offers this: "The cliché of 'fast, good, cheap…pick two' rings true. I believe we can expand that to 'price, performance, features…pick either price, or performance and features and we'll throw in human relationships'."
Ashley Diffey, ANZ and Japan Country Manager, Ping Identity offers an expansion on the humanity part. "Human relationship is an important element in the selection process, but it is more than being likeable."
Jim Cook, ANZ Regional Director, Attivo Networks identifies the importance of trust, adding that "The simple answer to the question is that a supplier should help the customer to understand what they need as fully as they can, which builds trust and allows for any potential technology solution's value to be maximised."
O'Hara also reflects on the importance of trust: "As a supplier, what's key in maximising your value to the customer is to be a trusted guide. Ideally the guide has access to a broad portfolio of offerings scaling from low to high dollars with a matching low to high offering in feature/performance. The supplier, if doing their job well and ethically, should look to match the level to the need. That requires honest conversations about budget, realistic outcomes and fairness in any negotiation - from both sides."
Theo Hourmouzis, Senior Regional Director, Australia South at Snowflake alludes to the same idea, without specifically using the word 'trust'. "In order to maximise ourselves to our customers, we approach each conversation with a partnership mindset, how do we genuinely help our customers solve the immediate and future business problems."
George Dragatsis, ANZ CTO and Pre-Sales Director, Hitachi Vantara agrees - "That engagement will not be short term. We will go through what our customers go through, hand in hand.
"Companies don't start out by saying they need a particular piece of kit. They are trying to something happen - to fix or change something, adapt to a challenge, do something better, provide something new to their customer, whatever. [Our] approach is one of partnership and collaboration with a customer and with the partners and other vendors involved in making it happen, getting to that outcome."
Attivo's Jim Cook, identified an interesting trust issue when it comes to the specific reasons that a customer wishes to engage his services. "In cyber, building trusted relationships will lead to an easier decision process for the customer because they can't necessarily disclose the reason why their need is so important. For example, do they want to (or are they allowed) to discuss risks outside of their organisation? If we take the example above - detecting in-network cyber criminal activity - the high level requirement can be broken down into a load of different potential components such as keeping systems running, keeping staff and customers safe, not exposing intellectual property, and reputational damage from an exposed breach…so when a customer says they have a 'need for in network detection' they can only break that need down to people who they trust. So relationship is critical!"
Returning to the original question, Shad Mortazavi, Founder and Managing Director of OpenIQ speaks to the finesse required to know that no two customers are the same. "Juggling price, performance, product features isn't a one-size-fits all approach. The tradition of flogging a product and retrofitting the solution is expensive and time consuming. The trend is moving to more customised solutions at a sensible price which can be implemented in a timely manner, thereby minimising downtime, and optimizing the customer experience."
With this in mind, Graham Sowden, General Manager APAC at Okta https://www.okta.com/ would agree. "This question highlights the importance of putting the customer first. While technology providers are commercial organisations with revenue and growth goals, satisfied and loyal customers will be at the heart of any successful business." Sometime though, we wonder about the aims and methods, of course.
Sowden continues, "As pointed out in the question, there are many competing pressures for customer organisations trying to make informed and sustainable choices in the very crowded and noisy technology space. As a supplier of software and services, it's important to ensure your combined offering makes selecting and implementing new technology as simple as possible."
In an attempt to bring these threads together, Brian Holder, General Manager Sales and Marketing - Tecala suggests "In our ongoing relationships with our customers [we] like to fulfill a strategic advisory and consulting role. We don't believe there's much value in engaging an IT services provider if they can't provide an informed, expert opinion. So from the very outset, even before they become a customer, we engage senior technical consulting resources to ensure we know enough about their business and existing environment to ensure we can provide valuable advice and firm recommendations that we would be prepared to back. It makes sense for us to help select and combine the most appropriate components of a solution because, ultimately, if we are managing it we know we are accountable not just for SLAs but for overall, ongoing solution efficacy.
"It's been said that by taking this approach we actually provide an outsourced R&D function for clients that would never be able to keep across the entire range of never-ending technological advances."
Mike Hicks, Principal Solutions Analyst - ThousandEyes echos those thoughts, "Business relationships are partnerships and defining customer business objectives once, at the onset of a sale, is simply not enough. As suppliers, we have to show what success looks like and help customers align and realign their business objectives as conditions evolve."
Joe McKenna, Global CIO, Syntax speaks to the role that integration vendors can play. "Hardware, software, or services selection is time consuming, especially as you conduct your due diligence. A partner or vendor is critical to the success of the implementation. It may look good on the surface, so you have to deep dive into the features and functionality.
"Unless you have the personnel to answer and manage [all] aspects of a technology solution, you should seek out help from consultants and consider using a managed services provider (MSP) to manage the technology solution. These are some of the ways to assist in the selection and implementation of your technology solution."
Tony Hudson, commercial director, Vertel looks at this issue from the opposite direction - how easily can things go wrong? "A lot of point solutions can fail because the other elements that support it haven't been thought through. Often, this may not be within the remit of the specific supplier; however, it's important for the supplier to have considered it and to have advised the customer. From [our] perspective, this is about looking beyond just the offering being provided to considering the other critical elements that will contribute to the best business outcome."
Returning to the original 'trust' theme,' Dhruv Dhumaktar, Director Solutions Engineering, NetApp ANZ notes that, "How vendors can 'maximise' themselves is more in the eye of the beholder; in this case, the customer. Vendors need to invest time in getting to know the customer, including their pain points and what they are trying to achieve."
Brandon Voight, regional director of sales, information management, Micro Focus agrees, suggesting that "Through collaboration and discussion between the end-user, their procurement people and the supplier, we can all explore and agree on the expected economic or productivity value that is to be delivered by the purchased software. Including the software supplier as early as possible in these key discussions, will let us possibly deliver a higher ROI for the customer."
Adding to this, Mike Mortimer, Director of Product, Machine Learning & AI at Zendesk ANZ. suggests that "A huge part of what we do isn't about ticking features off a list, but working closely with customers to understand their business, their strategies and goals, and truly partner with them to help them achieve success. Often it's not about just having the tools in the toolbox, it's about knowing how to use them effectively, and helping customers see the value and impact quickly when used effectively."
David Hirst, Group Executive - Macquarie Data Centres suggests that, while pre-sales trust is important, post-sale delivery is top-of-mind for many organisations: "Generating and maintaining trust is an ongoing process that requires significant commitment from everyone in an organisation and needs to be baked in. Having the personnel that go above and beyond to provide added services, agility, and the ability to help at any time of day can make all the difference, especially for international customers. We bake this into our business."
Stuart O'Neill, Managing Director APAC, Coupa Software is in total agreement - "So when we say that we help companies spend smarter, and that offering our customers business value is our higher purpose, we mean that their outcomes are built in as the focus for each implementation."
Similarly, Rod Lester, managing director - ANZ, NICE tells us that "When it comes to making technology investments it is not just about the product; it is about the culture of the organisation and track record for delivery. It doesn't matter how many accolades you have; the customer needs to know that the project will get delivered successfully and that they don't need to worry about it."
So, you're probably only as good as your most recent review!
Lester continues… "An important part of providing assurance to customers, and one that [my company] uses often, is being able to point potential new customers to existing ones so they can hear first-hand the business problem they were facing and how NICE helped them address it."
To give some context to this, Daniel Harding, Director - Australia Operations, MaxContact adds that "We believe that end users understand what they require, and will have an idea of what that should cost, but ultimately they are people making decisions and will purchase from people they can make a connection with, see long term value in the relationship and can trust what they say they will deliver. We maximise our efforts by ensuring our sales process is an honest one. We will not promise anything we cannot deliver." So, trust really is important.
Finally, Adrian Johnson, VP and Managing Director - Australia and New Zealand, Hitachi Vantara offers that "Our approach to co-creation for social innovation and powering good, stands us apart."
Many of our contributors wanted to identify what was wonderful about the organisation for which they currently worked, while others strode a more generic line.
For instance, Sowden suggested, "While many technology companies try to 'do it all', there are certain advantages to being a neutral platform that integrates with any solution that an organisation chooses or already uses. Enterprise technology networks have become increasingly complex - which means managing and securing that environment is all the more difficult. Independent platforms with open APIs and SDKs allow customers to make the most of their existing investments, drive development and customisation, and meet future use cases. Flexibility is key as the way we work and our corresponding application stack continues to evolve.
"Offering customer support services beyond deployment is also a crucial part of maximising yourself to the customer by building a partnership and establishing long-lasting rapport. Tailored professional services that accelerate time to value, and ensure solutions are customised to meet the individual needs of the organisation, go a long way to ensuring customer satisfaction."
Daniel Markuson, digital privacy expert at NordVPN adds, "No brand can survive without taking care of all four aspects (price, performance, features, and human relationship). Just recently, our app received 5 stars on the App Store because the customer service agent, on top of fixing the problem, recommended a fabulous show on Netflix.
That folks is the human element, right there!
Markuson continues, "In order to understand what users really appreciate, one cannot do without continuous surveys. For example, we thought that our users would appreciate and use [our] router app. However, we’ve learned that only 0.02% would check the functionality. Instead of wasting our time on developing the feature, we focused on reworking the protocols the service is running on.
“Let’s not forget that, behind every product, company, or device, there is a human. Therefore, the world is driven by emotion. We know very little about our customers because of the nature of our business, but we still try to pamper them.
Snowflake’s Hourmouzis adds that “Criteria like price, performance and features have and will always be a part of the decision process. The reality is that most of these criteria are researched, and preliminary decisions formed before you have an opportunity to engage with the client. From our very first interaction, our focus is going beyond the technical requirements and getting a deep understanding of what business problems the client is trying to solve. Most of the discussions fall broadly into categories like increasing revenue, decreasing cost, and reducing risk.
“For example, working with a large e-commerce organisation, the technical criteria was focused around simplifying their BI and Analytics platform and improving performance. All seemed simple enough. However, through a thoughtful discovery process, we realised the challenges to the business was time to lead conversion, increasing revenue, and gaining market share. Once we understood their revenue and market share aspirations, we turned quickly from solving technical problems to exploring new capabilities such as data science and data sharing, which paved the way for new revenue-generating opportunities.
Vinayak Sreedhar, ANZ Country Manager, ManageEngine www.managengine.com notes that, “customers today look for solutions that have an immediate business impact while being extremely cost effective.” Above all else, it’s the bottom line!
Chris Ellis, Technical Director at Nintex: www.nintex.com continues this theme. “At Nintex, it’s important for our teams to be able to articulate how our software solution can solve a real business problem. Much of our initial conversation with a customer is focusing on their business problem. Whether it be a newly-remote workforce unable to raise specific requests, a board of directors not getting board papers signed in a timely manner, or a quote-to-cash process being bogged down by manual steps, we have to focus on the issues costing the end-user time, money and sleepless nights.
“From there we have to prove the value of investing in the technology. Whether that involves a small proof of concept to run internally or a more straightforward ‘can it do this’ demo, it’s important to showcase true transformation using the technology and not just side-stepping the real issue and moving it elsewhere. In line with this, we’re often asked “Where has this been done before using your tool?” We have a wealth of great customer stories from clients like Amazon, LinkedIn and Zoom that talk to the benefits and real world ROI of using us.
“The bulk of our awareness and enablement material is free for all, whether it’s courses on our online Nintex University or a solution in our Process Accelerator Gallery or even a customer sending some users along to a Process Excellence build workshop. It’s important to maintain a theme of inclusivity regardless of the role someone plays in an organisation. We want to create a ground swell of awareness in an organisation to help land and expand the true value of business process automation and Nintex.”
Claudia Pirko, Regional Vice President ANZ – BlackLine takes a very similar line. “We put a lot of focus on taking the time to truly understand our customer before we start proposing solutions. This involves understanding the business priorities, the people, the processes and the tasks that need to be performed. This discovery process begins when we first meet a new prospect and continues throughout our relationship after a customer has come onboard.
“We believe this approach is critical to long term success as our customers are not looking to buy a new piece of “kit”, but rather are looking for change, so really investing in understanding current state and how that will change is paramount.”
That’s an excellent point. When you dig deep enough, customers (mostly) aren’t buying ‘kit’ or ‘solutions’ or ‘advice,’ they’re buying a way out of some current (or perceived future) level of pain.
Of course the internet makes it more difficult to proclaim exclusive expertise when there is ample evidence via all the search engines that most businesses are not as unique as they would have us believe.
Mark Sinclair, ANZ Regional Director, WatchGuard Technologies has observed that “End-users are doing more and more research online these days before wanting to engage in human relationships. Quite often this research will be online via review sites and the supplier's web site. As a supplier it is critical that we ensure that we are super-responsive on review sites and that we have a rich web presence with easy to find product research material.
“Once an end-user is at the point where they need some questions answered, then suppliers need to have plenty of options for the end-user to get in touch. The obvious option is a phone number to call, but these days email, forums and chat are equally important. Having a broad partner network also helps since it has a multiplier effect on the number of people available to answer questions.
“Finally, many customers want to try before they buy. Most software suppliers will offer a free trial via their web site. Hardware suppliers will typically have evaluation kit available to help customers with this requirement.”
Mortazavi relates a similar theme: “The critical piece is understanding the needs and capability of the end-user, the primary issue/challenge that needs to be addressed and the available budget. It’s important to start with the end in mind, specifically the existing business processes with which a solution needs to integrate or the need to develop new processes. The key is achieving efficiency, from a time and cost perspective, by providing novel technologically advanced solutions.
Joanne Wong, Vice President – International Marketing (APAC and EMEA), LogRhythm briefly sets the discussion in a security context. “If you think the solution is to sell another shiny device and plug it into your customers’ network, you’re simply perpetrating the myth that it’s possible to buy your way to safety. While there is clearly a role for products, it’s important as a vendor that you develop strategies which are much broader. In this way, all aspects of cyber risk can be assessed and each part of the customer organisation made aware of its particular role both in mitigation and response should an incident occur.
Holder makes a near-identical comment. “We’re never going to recommend bleeding-edge technology or fall prey to the “bright shiny object” syndrome. But our broad team of subject matter experts are passionate about presenting leading-edge technology at the right time and in the right place for our clients.”
Setting us back down on the ground, Steve Singer, ANZ Country Manager, Talend notes that “Acquiring an IT solution in the past has always been a complex process requiring time, both in researching and benchmarking different offerings as well as a significant financial investment not forgetting the deployment itself which requires time and resources.
“Today, there are many software and services available to customers to choose from. Companies maximise their presence through the deployment of a digital strategy, reliable SEO, referrals from leading analyst firms, a communications strategy to promote offerings as well as customer use cases. Building strong relationships with technology partners (SIs, VARs) who become your influencers is all the more necessary because they are in direct contact with the end-user.”
Here’s the kicker…
“Now, users want to consume software like they consume streaming videos or music. The only thing they need is a credit card. They want to start data loading projects easily; they want to connect cloud sources into data warehouses or data lakes in minutes as simply as they purchase on Amazon.
“In recent times, the way of purchasing a solution has also evolved. You have the opportunity to use your credit card, go to a vendor's site, and acquire a solution (pay as you go) and be operational in minutes. The cloud was truly the catalyst for this new mode of consumption. However, prospects also need to know that you have the strategic experts on the ground in country ready to drive bottom line revenue and support with solutions which are the correct fit in terms of software, services, and architecture to ensure project success.
“Providing customers with a frictionless experience in terms of acquisition, deployment, and support is the optimal way to win new business today.”
Broadly echoing the previous comments, while identifying the problem of growing from ‘Me:Inc’ to something more substantial, Joe McKenna, Global CIO, Syntax notes that "There are so many aspects to consider when deciding what technology you should use to run your business. When you select technology for personal use, some of these decisions come into play. However, the impact of missing key factors has limited impact. The stakes are higher when it comes to picking technology for your business."
Sometimes, even though 'the customer is always right' (yeah, right…) Coupa's O'Neill reminds us that "We can tell that they aren't sure what can be accomplished when the tender is a long list of functions, features and capabilities instead of a request for quote to support outcomes and objectives. That kind of tender is not setting everyone up for success."
O'Neill continues, "When we quote, we first assess data and information we request from the prospective customer to understand their environment and operations, and then prepare a customised Value Book that says, "If you do XYZ, the outcomes will be as follows". Outcomes include things like productivity gains, cost savings and efficiencies. They are specific, like "90% of spend will be under contract", "90% of invoices will be paid within five days", "100% of suppliers will be using a consistent system, which will create x efficiencies and save you x amount of time". It goes beyond just building a business case, to providing clear commitments about savings and value."
Drawing things to an end and seeking a future…
Arun Shenoy, VP Sales & Marketing, Serverfarm observes that, "Great companies don't run on software tools, hardware or services - they run on the data managed by the software and the intelligence of the people interpreting and actioning the information through effective processes. In general, the enterprise market has been shifting toward the "as a service" model - software and hardware is only as good as the helpful team with deep, real-world experience behind it.
"In the data centre world, this is still being learned. Selecting good data centre management is about efficiency, sustainability, high availability and cost - and consumers miss out when they believe they must sacrifice one or more of these areas. The best solution providers are finding a way to tackle all of their client's main pain points through the exponential efficiencies promised by next-gen technology such as machine learning. If data centre management was about choosing a new piece of "kit," then every Data Centre Infrastructure Management (DCIM) customer would be running the world's most efficient operation.
Zendesk's Mortimer offers this pearl: "We are often building things that we couldn't imagine ten years before. Things that are a given today, like using AI to personalise and automate customer experience, weren't comprehensible twenty years ago. That means every time we develop new solutions, we have to be taking the products a step further, thinking ahead and building products and features companies may not even realise they need yet.
"Good product development always comes down to one thing - asking the right questions. We try to understand why something looks, does, or is the way it is. Should this be easier? Should it be more consistent? Who are we building this solution for? What's the core challenge it solves?
"Asking the right questions can mean there are a lot of changes. But that change is good - it helps us to find the perfect balance for customers between price, features and usability. If we have the features that generate the right outcomes, but are challenging to use, then we question how we can make it easier for end-users, and vice versa for price and features. That includes how quickly and easily customers can implement our products to maximise time-to-value, adapt their processes to on ground realities, and in time realise the return-on-investment.
"One thing that's undeniable however, is that reliability and stability aren't negotiable. When you're dealing with the human relationships through conversations between our customers and their users, all the features in the world don't matter if the product isn't available when you need it."
just building a business case, to providing clear commitments about savings and value."
We opened with a few thoughts from Mimecast's Garrett O'Hara, so it' probably only fitting that he close this discussion. "Price, performance and features are tied together in an obvious way: as the performance and feature set increases, so does the price due to increased value. Flagship smartphones cost more than feature phones. Not everybody needs a smartphone but most people do. Price reflects perceived value so for a luddite a smartphone is expensive but for a technophile it's cheap.
"In my experience there are broadly two approaches. Short term and long term views.
" 'Short term view' suppliers will oversell and chase higher prices. They don't place value in long term partnerships (which leads to long term revenue). They add less value to both the supplier landscape and consumers because ultimately the motivation is short term gain and causes a mismatch between needs and supply. Cue shelf-ware, angry customers when the widget doesn't deliver and general distrust of all suppliers. In the short term a single supplier wins. But in the long term nobody wins.
" 'Long term view' suppliers aim for a partnership to deliver value matched to the customer needs and don't over or undersell. That leads to better outcomes for the customer, the supplier and ultimately all other suppliers. There is skin in the game beyond a sale. You'll see the customer regularly going forward. Your reputation in a small industry is involved. Long term view suppliers maximise their value by being a knowledgeable, honest and ethical guide. There is huge perceived value for a customer in having a trusted partner. Passing on short term revenue can often mean more stable and larger revenue in the medium and long term. You are the supplier that gets approached because you have a track record of getting it right. Word spreads, intangible value pushes dollar outcomes for both parties, customers don't overspend and long term revenue for suppliers is protected."
Bringing us right back to the whole concept of trust and being a trusted advisor.
Our thanks to all who contributed to this piece.