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Quick-Take: Is Your Marriage a Happy One?

November 12, 2010

I came across a recent post by Chad Sakac (VP, VMware Alliance at EMC) discussing the issue of how vendors drive customer specifications down from broader goals to individual features or implementation sets (I’m sure VCE was not in mind at the time.) When it comes to vendors insist on framing the “client argument” in terms of specific features and proprietary approaches, I have to agree that Chad is spot on. Here’s why:

First, it helps when vendors move beyond the “simple thinking” of infrastructure elements as a grid of point solutions and more of an “organic marriage of tools” – often with overlapping qualities. Some marriages begin with specific goals, some develop them along the way and others change course drastically and without much warning. The rigidness of point approaches rarely accommodates growth beyond the set of assumptions that created the it in the first place. Likewise, the “laser focus” on specific features detracts from the overall goal: the present and future value of the solution.

When I married my wife, we both knew we wanted kids. Some of our friends married and “never” wanted kids, only to discover a child on the way and subsequent fulfillment through raising them. Still, others saw a bright future strained with incompatibility and the inevitable divorce. Such is the way with marriages.

Second, it takes vision to solve complex problems. Our church (Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama) takes a very cautious position on the union between souls: requiring that each new couple seeking a marriage give it the due consideration and compatibility testing necessary to have a real chance at a successful outcome. A lot of “problems” we would encounter were identified before we were married, and when they finally popped-up we knew how to identify and deal with them properly.

Couples that see “counseling” as too obtrusive (or unnecessary) have other options. While the initial investment of money are often equivalent, the return on investment is not so certain. Uncovering incompatibilities “after the sale” provides for difficult and too often a doomed outcome (hence, 50% divorce rate.)

This same drama plays out in IT infrastructures where equally elaborate plans, goals and unexpected changes abound. You date (prospecting and trials), you marry (close) and are either fruitful (happy client), disappointed (unfulfilled promises) or divorce. Often, it’s not the plan that failed but the failure to set/manage expectations and address problems that causes the split.

Our pastor could not promise that our marriage would last forever: our success is left to God and the two of us. But he did help us to make decisions that would give us a chance at a fruitful union. Likewise, no vendor can promise a flawless outcome (if they do, get a second opinion), but they can (and should) provide the necessary foundation for a successful marriage of the technology to the business problem.

Third, the value of good advice is not always obvious and never comes without risk. My wife and I were somewhat hesitant on counseling before marriage because we were “in love” and were happy to be blind to the “problems” we might face. Our church made it easy for us: no counseling, no marriage. Businesses can choose to plot a similar course for their clients with respect to their products (especially the complex ones): discuss the potential problems with the solution BEFORE the sale or there is no sale. Sometimes this takes a lot of guts – especially when the competition takes the route of oversimplification. Too often IT sales see identifying initial problems (with their own approach) as too high a risk and too great an obstacle to the sale.

Ultimately, when you give due consideration to the needs of the marriage, you have more options and are better equipped to handle the inevitable trials you will face. Whether it’s an unexpected child on the way, or an unexpected up-tick in storage growth, having the tools in-hand to deal with the problem lessens its severity. The point is, being prepared is better than the assumption of perfection.

Finally, the focus has to be what YOUR SOLUTION can bring to the table: not how you think your competition will come-up short. In Chad’s story, he’s identified vendors disqualifying one another’s solutions based on their (institutional) belief (or disbelief) in a particular feature or value proposition. That’s all hollow marketing and puffery to me, and I agree completely with his conclusion: vendors need to concentrate on how their solution(s) provide present and future value to the customer and refrain from the “art” of narrowly framing their competitors.

Features don’t solve problems: the people using them do. The presence (or absence) of a feature simply changes the approach (i.e. the fallacy of feature parity). As Chad said, it’s the TOTALITY of the approach that derives value – and that goes way beyond individual features and products. It’s clear to me that a lot of counseling takes place between Sakac’s EMC team and their clients to reach those results. Great job, Chad, you’ve set a great example for your team!

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