Tighten up your customer focus

You can get inexpensive 24 port network switches from a variety of vendors. But will that make your customer happy?

In sports, successful athletes narrow their focus during crunch time. They may concentrate on footwork, technique or increase their margin for error. Technology providers must do the same thing during tough economic times. You must focus on your customer and nothing but your customer, whether the customer is a consumer, another business, or internal departments needing technology and support.

Two recent episodes triggered this "back to basics" focus. First, a sales consultant at a recent ITEC show reminded me of an old sales manager speech. Every customer listens to one radio station, and that's WII FM (What's In It For Me?). Customers, whether external or internal, don't care a bit about your troubles, because all they do is worry about their own problems. This is the ultimate "sell the benefits, not the features" example, because those listening to WII FM don't care about fancy new features on technical products unless they benefit them directly.

The second example that drove this idea home was a new Best Buy commercial with the tagline "You. Happier." Two words, one great idea. The ad didn't promise to save you money, or give you a TV with higher resolution, it promised to make you happier. Saving money and a higher resolution TV are merely steps to being happier, at least according to Best Buy. The higher order promise is that no matter what you want, going to Best Buy will make you happier. We can all use more happy during these days, and Best Buy is tapping into that yearning.

As small businesses clutch their technology budgets ever more tightly to their chests, offering technology for technology's sake won't relax their grip. Technology may well be the answer to their problem, so illustrate how better their life will be after the problem is solved. If they need a new phone system, don't sell VoIP because it's new, sell it because it ties distributed workers into a single phone system. If they need a new laptop, sell them one of the tiny new "netbooks" if portability and price fit their situation. If they edit video or do other graphical applications and want desktop replacements, one of the gamer-inspired hot rod laptops will cost considerably more but make them considerably happier.

Let's say your customer, whether another company or a department within your own, has a physical layer network problem. It could be network congestion, some slow hubs creating a bottleneck or old wiring that degrades the network by dropping packets. You think they need a new Gigabit Ethernet switch, but they don't think that. They don't want to worry any more about the invisible network plumbing causing more failures. Eliminating these problems will make them happier, and that's our goal.

You can get inexpensive 24 port network switches from a variety of vendors. But will that make your customer happy? You will upgrade their network throughput speeds, but not address their wiring problems.

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How can these customers become happy? You can throw a cable testing tool or two on top of the new switch, but then you have added hundreds or thousands of dollars to their bill and added hours of time required to test each cabling run. Your customer probably still won't be happy.

Sometimes, even in this climate, spending more leads to more happiness. I recently visited the Adtran folks in Alabama, and one of their boasting points is a line of Gigabit Ethernet switches with built in cable diagnostics and reporting. They have several models, but the model number for the one I'm thinking of now is the NetVanta 1534.

Not only does the NetVanta 1534 support wireline speeds for all connections in and out, it includes a cable diagnostics mode that identifies problem cables, tells you if the line is open or shorted and lists the distance away from the switch where the problem is. That will make your customer happier than a cheap switch and some testing tools, because it will indicate problem links so they don't have to test all their cable runs.

Being a big fan of the 80/20 rule, I regularly see that users barely scratch 20 percent of the capabilities of many of their technology tools. You may make your customer happier, and save them money, by training users how to better use the tools they have rather than trying to upgrade them. This really saves money when we're talking about internal support teams, since you don't have to pay for training hours and the money you don't spend on the upgrade is your own.

In tennis, successful players aim away from the lines and more toward the center of the court when under pressure. The same applies today. You don't have to get creative and outthink your customer to make them happy. You just need to provide technology that hits squarely in the center of your customer's sweet spot and not push boundaries. If you're internal, this provides a near term (cliché alert) win/win for the tech department and the user.

If you're an outside service or sales support person, the same thinking applies, but you must think longer term. Teaching and training customers to better leverage existing tools looks like a winner for them but a loser for you. Actually, making your customer happy always yields better results than selling your customer a particular piece of hardware or software. Happier customers are long time customers.