When customers come to visit us I am always interested to know why they choose our venue over theirs. Usually they just want to get out of the office and today is Friday after all. Today’s visitors were here for an altogether different reason. They wanted to see how “real” we were.
You can tell a lot by being in someone’s office. You see how busy they are, how they interact with team members, bosses, employees. You get an impression of how they organize themselves and what their organizational status is relative to others. And we learn all of this, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out, in a the “Blink” of an eye.
During our 3 hour meeting a very interesting topic came up. We were discussing our corporate philosophy of “never let a customer fail”, which was handed down to us from a former CEO Michael Capellas, and we were describing how we view our customers as business partners. As an organization we strive to develop an intimate relationship with our customers and learn, in detail, about their business operations so we can better support them with our products and services over a long period of time. We do this because customers are hard to get and easy to lose; but most of all because, in our business model, 80% of the revenue we get comes in the years after the initial sale.
Our visitors thanked us for trying to be better business partners but asked us not to try too hard!
Their practice, they told us, is to engage with vendors in short 1, 2 or 3 years bursts. They do this because their own corporate strategy changes dramatically and regularly and any period of time over a couple of years is utterly unpredictable. Any products and services they may be using today may no longer be relevant 1, 2 or 3 years down the line.
They also know that their suppliers’ strategies will evolve over time and may not necessarily meet their needs in the future. Competing solutions will come along that will streamline how they do business and they want to be agile enough to be able to abandon one set of technologies in favor of another. And they want to be able to do this without feeling tied to a vendor out of some misplaced sense of loyalty.
“It is”, as they put it “just business”.
Now this is a remarkable corporate philosophy. Normally we try to control our suppliers and force them to meet our prices and specifications and time-frames in exchange for long term contracts and guaranteed annual revenues. But here this client is saying, we will pay whatever you ask that is reasonable, we will exploit your technology as long as we think it suits our purpose and when it doesn’t we will pick something else.
What is in it for the client? Well it means that know something better is going to come along eventually and they run their business on the basis that when it does they will not hesitate to embrace it. They are immune to ROI (Return On Investment) calculations that extend out to 10 years because they can barely see beyond 10 months. If you want to sell something to them you better have a pretty great case for delivering value fast: out-of-the-box in fact! And they know their business competitors are likely to stick with older technologies because it is very hard to sell replacing something your implemented less than 24-months earlier. This gives them a very significant competitive advantage.
To have all of this ingrained into the corporate culture is nothing short of remarkable.
And what about the vendors? We all need to understand that if we get kicked out and replaced by the latest technology or product or service, it wasn’t anything personal. When we’re negotiating we can ask for reasonable prices for our stuff and we do not have to discount in the hope of getting the revenue back in the long term: because there will likely not be a long term. We also know that if we are the incumbent supplier for more than a couple of years our competitors are still behind us technologically: and we also know if we get replaced we need to bring our stuff up to date fast as the competitors passed us!
How would you deal with this kind of customer? Would you have the confidence to say “if I lose this customer it is because the market changed and I didn’t – and I better do something about that quick”? How many of these kinds of customers do you have today and you don’t know it?
Could you be this kind of customer? Are you able to have an emotionless relationship with the people who provide you with goods and services so that you can say to them “what you provide is what I need today and when I find something better I will move to it”? How many of your suppliers do you keep because they are personal friends, how many suppliers do you ignore because they simply compete with your friends?
If you are in business to make a living you have to choose what is right for the business, not what is right for your friends and family. Next time you choose a business partner, a customer or a supplier ask yourself “am I attached to the value they bring or the am I attached to them?”
After my visitors left today I was ready to Empower Change in my organization and liberate our own thinking about what it is to be a customer and what it is to be a supplier. I am revisiting all of the partners I work with and asking “are you doing the best for my business?” It is going to be very interesting.