Monday, October 16, 2006

The Fax / Microwave Problem

And now, a question for all the Marketing people out there, or at least those people who talk to a lot of clients. Think of this as a bit of introspective research, if you will.

Let's suppose that you have a brand-new product or service on your hands, and that you're expected to sell it to a random selection of clients. Let's also say, for the sake of argument, that the product or service in question is so unprecedented that you don't have much in the way of history to work with -- say, a combination fax machine / microwave oven. And finally, just so that we don't continue stumbling over the term throughout this article, let's call it "The Fax-Oven".

So your task, to put it in a businesslike manner, is to sell the Fax-Oven to any number of corporate offices. Although the bulk of the units will only arrive in a few weeks, you currently have a few test units that can already be sold and implemented. And of course, you have access to a number of market studies indicating that fax machines and microwave ovens are a fixture in a lot of high-class offices. (I would be surprised if they weren't, I suppose.)

Given that you have all these materials and the right skills to supplement them, you could probably sell the Fax-Oven to clients, and do so quite easily. The catch, I think, would lie in what the clients would expect to see from you.

That's where my question comes in: What would be the best way to convince clients that your little Fax-Oven doohickey would work for them?

If you only had to demonstrate that the product worked, I suppose that it would probably be an easy sell. We can safely imagine that the Fax-Oven is the most efficient and stable product combination of its type, after all. The problem is that it's not merely a matter of demonstration; You'll have to convince a client that your proposed item is worth implementing on an initial basis, or worth replacing older products of the same kind. A company will not shell out money just because a product works -- you will need to prove that the product is viable, too.

How, then, would you go about doing that?

Two methods immediately come to mind. The first involves background studies and theoretical analysis, which is probably where the surveys come in. You could tell the client, for example, that current studies show significant usage patterns for both fax machines and microwave ovens in offices -- patterns that run remarkably close to one another. Bearing in mind that the same subset of people use both the fax machines and the microwave ovens, combining these two machines into a single unit would not adversely affect daily requirements, yet save on the cost of power and maintenance.

The problem with the above approach, however, is that it's all theoretical. A client can easily toss aside any hypothetical conclusions regarding the product, and demand that you give him some concrete evidence to support your proposal.Evidence, after all, is quite difficult to dispute.

This leads to a possible second approach: You implement some of your test units in a few other clients, and monitor their feedback after a bit of time. You could probably offer a "promo" or "beta" discount to these clients in exchange for the information, or possibly even gift the Fax-Oven units to them. After you finish gathering all the feedback and testimonials from these 'test cases', you can collate everything into a final report, and then use it to convince the skeptics. Assuming that your responses are all good, that should provide a very good base for your sales pitch.

This empirical approach, however, also holds a catch: It'll take a while before you can expect any substantial feedback, and you'll still need some time to process everything on top of that. By the time you wrap up your so-called "hard evidence", some other company could already be peddling their own version of the product out there, and generally cutting your audience out from under your feet.

Yes, time's a huge factor in this one. Moreover, you'll need to bear in mind that the Fax-Oven is a first-generation product with no clear precedents (so you have nothing but pure theoretical information to start with), and that you have no way to determine how fast your competition is moving (so you don't have a good idea of how much time you have before the "originality" of your product goes flat).

You can see why this isn't an easy consideration, especially when you're playing with the modern corporate setting. Do you have time to come up with substantial testimonies for the viability of your product? And if you don't, will potential clients readily accept the risk of theoretical information?

It's probably one or the other, I think. And if you slice it down to its essential core, it'll all depend on what your clients are willing to work with. Are modern clients comfortable enough with theoretical information, or do they absolutely require empirical evidence? That, unfortunately, is the question that I can't answer. (Although there are probably a few procurement agents or business developers out there who can answer me on this one.)

Exercises like these, I think, measure the priority of hypotheticals against the logic of empiricals. The empirical evidence is far better to look at, of course, but the theoreticals simply have the issue of time on their side. It's a lot like seeing the wind blow down trees and power lines, and realizing that you're standing in the middle of a powerful typhoon: If you had listened to the weather report the day before, you would then have had a lot more time to seek shelter.

All that, and I haven't even discussed how pricing fits into the whole picture. I'll leave that to the true analysts, though; Anticipating how potential clients think is enough of a headache for me as it is.

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