Customer Distractions May Be OK

Quick Summary: Staying focused is critical, but examining potential distractions may be a game changer.


Remaining focused on the needs of current customers is strong advice preached to companies.  Clearly, losing focus has been a primary cause of failure for many companies.  However, customers in adjacent or even completely different markets may see potential for your product or service that you have not envisioned.  Discarding these ideas can be as disastrous as unquestionably pursuing them.  Customers can be visionaries.  Take time to examine their vision.

Counter to the advice given in multiple articles in this series, responding to prospects that are not within the company’s focus may be worthwhile.  Most companies have an extremely difficult time remaining focused on their selected “sweet spot” market and are likely to pursue revenue opportunities wherever and whenever they appear. More often than not, these activities waste precious resources and do not result in positive outcomes.  There are exceptions and, unfortunately, whether the outcome is positive or negative only becomes obvious after the expenditure of time and effort.

A good first-pass filter to apply to determine if the new opportunity should be pursued is its initial source. If it is the result of a hunting/gathering expedition of a sales rep or broadcasted marketing outreach program that casts a large net, the potential opportunity is probably not worth pursuing.  However, if a prospective customer contacts the company, it may be prudent to better understand what prompted their interest.  The prospect may be experiencing a unique problem and envision your solution, perhaps applied differently, as a possible answer to their problem.  Obviously, careful investigation needs to be performed to determine if, in fact, your product can fulfill their need or if some modifications may be required.  Also, can the company adequately support the new application, and is it potentially scalable for similar prospects that can help justify the newly-required fulfillment and support efforts?  Many companies’ products and systems have morphed well beyond their original intended purposes and become quite successful.  Probably an equal number of companies chose to ignore the new opportunity and later regretted it. One example of this situation was Nokia, who, at one time, had an excellent position in the handset market.  They chose to ignore the US smartphone market and pursue low cost handset markets in India and other third world countries.  Nokia is gone, local suppliers filled the low cost handset market, and the smartphone business in the US and around the world has taken off.

As another example, the original cellular architecture as developed by Bell Labs in 1947 did not contemplate customer data usage.  The original cellular deployments in the 1980s were not designed to accommodate data and, in fact, their designs actually made customer data transmissions difficult and error prone.  End users, independent of the carriers or cell phone manufacturers, persisted in exploring different methods of sending data over the networks.  Today, data traffic in all forms has surpassed voice traffic and the new LTE, 4th Generation system being deployed has been optimized for data traffic.

Another example involves the origination of Federal Express’s package tracking capabilities.  Originally, Federal Express installed voice radios in their delivery trucks to allow dispatchers to contact drivers regarding package pickup requests.  The central radio dispatchers found that more often than not, drivers were out of their vehicles, picking up packages at other customer locations and did not hear the radio dispatch message.  To alleviate this situation, FedEx installed mobile data terminals in the delivery vehicles so that the dispatch location request addresses and information could be delivered to the vehicle without any required driver interaction.  The system proved to be very effective and dramatically improved the afternoon delivery pickup business.  However, the system had very limited use during the morning package delivery period.  A Federal Express employee came up with the idea of equipping the mobile data terminals with the capability of scanning packages as they were being delivered.  The rest is history.  Using the idle dispatch mobile data system, the data was sent to the Federal Expresses central system.  Package tracking, which initially began as a huge marketing differentiator, has now become “table stakes” for all delivery services and has significantly helped make the entire package delivery system far more efficient.

Today, common wisdom says that vendors, not customers, innovate.  The underlying premise is that customers seldom know what is possible, while vendors do.  Apple is clearly an excellent example of a vendor that, through their innovations, is well ahead of virtually all customers with all products that they introduce.  However, do not discount out-of-hand prospect inquiries originating well outside of your mainstream business.  Distractions and deviations can lead to new paths that, in turn, can lead to pots of gold.



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