At first glance, the title of this article, “Ask Before You Sell,” probably sounds obvious, if not stupid. Of course, a tremendous amount of thought has gone into your new offering, perhaps involving months of work by many individuals. By now, everyone has become a cheerleader and is absolutely convinced that prospects will line up at your door to purchase your offering once you open the doors. It happens to all of us. It also happens to all of us that, in the past, we have been disappointed with product launches in which we had the same expectations. What happened?
Invariably, we seem to miss “minor” items that become painfully obvious once a prospect points them out to us - often through a simple comment. It may involve just a few minor items, but they are just bothersome enough to stall the momentum that you created with the trumpets blazing product announcement. Engineering and Marketing quickly point out that the issue is minor and the new offering meets 99.9% of all requirements; what more could be expected? As an extreme example, think of the way we drive: Well over 99.9% of the time we drive forward with less than 0.1% of the time driving in reverse. So, from a requirements point of view, we really don’t need reverse, right? Wrong! A few “silly, minor” requirements for your new offering could end up with the same result.
Unfortunately, market research, and even focus groups with experienced customers, most often do not uncover these minor issues that become major roadblocks after a product or service is announced. The reason is simple: before the product or service is real, individuals are forced to visualize the product. They may not take the time to carefully think through many of the details involved in actually implementing the product within their organization or with their customers. They, like you, may also have blinders on, enthusiastically supporting your efforts; they want you to succeed. Only when they have to make a firm commitment to spend money and risk their reputation will they most likely kick into a different, far more critical, gear and look harder and deeper. They may be pleasantly surprised about certain aspects, but are more likely to focus on some newly discovered shortcomings.
It is hard to avoid this situation, but there are a few things that can be done to catch some of these pitfalls before they stymie your best-laid announcement plans. It involves three activities: asking, listening, and taking action. These activities are separate from field trials as discussed in the articles in the section by that name. The “asking” needs to involve individuals within potential prospect organizations that are not predisposed to giving you and your new offering the benefit of the doubt. Essentially, you need to find and involve objective, and perhaps even hostile, individuals that will look at your offering with a jaundiced eye and openly share their concerns with you. They need to be exposed to the offering as close to its final form as possible. Further, they need to be approached on an individual basis and not a focus group in which “group think” can mask issues due to group pressure.
It is natural to look for and nurture a champion for you within the prospect’s organization. Unfortunately, while the champion is being created, a critic may also be created. The critic may not be obvious, or even remotely involved with your product. It could be as simple as another individual vying for the budget or resources to support their championed products and not yours. It could also involve someone that has supported an alternative approach in the past and may feel threatened that your offering may appear to others as being a better solution than they have previously advocated. Or, it could be that the implementation of your offering will place an undue burden on them and they are afraid that if it goes right, someone else will get the credit, but if it goes wrong, they will get the blame. No matter what their motive might be, asking these individuals for their thoughts, which really may be their critical analysis, will help to provide a unique perspective for you.
The actual process of asking is the easy part. The hard part is listening; really listening. The natural tendency you will have is to discount what they say, or argue with them. In the article, “A Simple Definition of a Defect,” a defect is defined as any deviation from a customer’s expectations. There is no value in arguing over it, simply accept the defect as reported and then decide how to address it or not. In this exercise, the same approach should be taken; accept every negative input at its face value. Only discuss the issue to gain a better understanding of what the issue is as stated. After accepting the issue, ask the person making the observation for their suggested method of addressing the issue. The most important approach that you must take is to focus on what the person thinks, and not what you or your product’s intention was. Their perception needs to become your reality.
Deciding to take action can be very difficult. Unfortunately, not taking action is a form of taking action which commonly occurs! With all of the work that has been expended to bring the new offering this close to the finish line, it is easy to ignore anything that will delay or require changes to the plan. Taking no action may be appropriate if the input truly represents an outlier issue that will (probably) not have a significant impact. However, be very careful about rationalizing outliers or rare circumstances. The massive recalls by auto companies, costing millions of dollars, when they guess wrong about outlier defects, is an excellent example of the problem of deciding to ignore presumed outliers.
Delaying an announcement generally has negative repercussions. However, re-trenching and then re-introducing an offering after initial issues have been addressed is generally far worse. Initial experience sets the standard. Bad experiences seem to linger in memories far after the situation is corrected.
You already know the good, find objective individuals that can help you identify the bad before the issues become ugly!