(This is a fictional story.)
Graham Heifernan ran an ICT & AV business that employed 20 enthusiastic individuals and was proud to have experienced very little staff turnover. The business was in a mature state and had been in operation since the early 1990s. Revenue was stable although it was plateauing somewhat and Graham was at a point in his life where he felt that the ‘networking’ and ‘sales’ were better left to his young and budding Relationship team.
But Graham was at the top of the shallow hierarchical structure he had created and realised that he was lacking the momentum needed to get them to the next level. Hosted technology was becoming more prolific and he was aware they risked becoming overwhelmed with the services they could provide. He wasn’t about to adopt Google as his partner of choice but he felt far too restricted to play in the same sandpit as Microsoft for fear he’d have all his toys stolen from him. But it wasn’t just the technology that challenged him, he’d been relying on local business networks to generate awareness but had been kidding himself so far into thinking that this was going to drive any serious income.
What Graham realised was that the quick jottings of the business plan in his mind was out of date and that nobody within the organisation was helping to manage these responsibilities well enough. The company was getting to the point where it was important to re-assert core values and keep the teams engaged and skilled enough to drive momentum independently.
Graham had been confident that their word-of-mouth strategy would see them through the slow economic recovery but also realised that he had to refine their service offerings to ensure that they confidently cemented their existing client relationships. They were so busy managing their existing business that he wasn’t sure how they were ever going to get the time to sit down and plan; despite their size, his departments mentally siloed themselves so that business processes coughed their way through and he was only too aware that there were gaps in the systems that allowed opportunities to fall through the net.
The company had always been proud of their client loyalty but when they lost a client it was typically for a reason that they could have easily avoided had they got out there and engaged better with them. What Graham wanted was to enhance their image with their current clients and create a successful means of reaching out to new customers.
So Graham chatted to a few other businesses in his profession and realised that he wasn’t alone in his situation. What he also noticed was that whilst he found some satisfaction in facing the same challenges as his peers, he was also saying exactly the same as each and every other ICT & AV company. Everyone claimed to be a Managed Services Provider (MSP) or a Value Adding Reseller (VAR) but nobody was clearly demonstrating this over another. Graham wanted to be seen by his clients as their Trusted Business Advisor, and when he thought about it, his career spanned over 30 years of business and technical experience, but he’d only so far told others about the latter.
In doing so, he realised that when he spoke about anything technical, the same people such as IT managers protective of their own jobs were his point of liaison. However, now that many more of their proposals were signed off by c-level managers within organisations, he needed to draw more on his business knowledge. And if he couldn’t get his own house in order, how was he ever going to demonstrate his ability to serve his clients in the same way?
His wife Cathy was working on her laptop when he got home that evening. She successfully worked for an events company in the City and was regularly out and about on-site with her clients. As he fell into the couch, she looked up, knowing full well that work pressure was beginning to mount on Graham much more than was typical.
When she asked him how things were, he initially answered with the typical ‘oh fine, you know, work’s work!’ but she wasn’t going to let it go. Finally, after enough persistence, Graham relented and she realised that his head had been harbouring so many loose-ended thoughts that even just being able to vent helped relieve some of the pressure.
Cathy was successful at her job because on every project, she sat with her clients to fully understand their expectations as well as their vision for the event. She’d learned to be sensitive and considerate to their requests but also controlled the situation because most of the time, what they were asking for wasn’t actually unique to them and in her experience, she could make a few tweaks here and there and they’d be just as excited with the end result. In order to reduce the time to process, she’d taken certain aspects of her work and commoditised them in order to roll out quicker or share with her colleagues for their own projects.
So when she asked Graham what it was exactly his business did, she was surprised to hear the short and unimaginative answer of ‘we’re a managed service provider’. Cathy was surprised because that’s exactly what she did. Why would Graham say this when he’d only told her stories of resolving technical problems whilst losing her in a sea of acronyms and jargon?
Graham resigned himself to the fact that he was always going to receive the an unimpressed look from Cathy since he got that from nearly every other non-technical person he’d told. Offloading to her had served no other purpose but to get through half an hours worth of rubbish TV… or so he thought.
‘What kind of services do you manage?’ Cathy asked.
‘IT’ said Graham unimpressed at Cathy even asked the question, like she’d understand what he meant if he tried to explain it.
‘What does IT mean to you?’ She asked, she didn’t appreciate the barrage of acronyms.
‘Well, it means Information Technology’
‘So I guess if we were to break it down further, it’s the way a business’ technology manages their information?’
‘I guess so’
‘Well why didn’t you say that before? Now I think I’d feel more comfortable asking you more about what you do! I also sell managed services, the same as a wedding co-ordinator, or a funeral director does, but I’ve never lead with that because my clients would never think off using that language.’
‘Hmmm, well that would explain partly why our web analysis don’t show that as a search criteria for our site.’
‘Exactly! You see, I facilitate a vision once my clients share with me. They come to me either with a problem or with a challenge and it’s my job to explore it to the point where they trust me to deliver it. I get to hear all sorts of things I wouldn’t usually be privy but you’d be surprised how much that helps build relationships and allow them to keep me in mind for the next project. I even get to hear how good their bank balance is looking and if I can deliver my solution under budget then it’s just another way I serve them.’
‘Yes, but you’re female. You’re good at that stuff. I couldn’t talk like you do to my clients and the guys at work would just laugh at me if I suggested they do likewise.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Well, I don’t.’
‘So enough with the hypothetical and why not go and try something different? You know what Einstein said, and he hasn’t been proven wrong yet! Seriously, now I have an initial understanding of your business and knowing you, I can sense you have a lot of opportunities available to you that you are simply choosing to ignore.’
Something clicked inside Graham that allowed him to listen to the small voice that had heard for a while now. It was time to park the ego and put a revised plan together.
2011 would be a renewed reason to love his business again and share it with their clients. With a month to go, he’d better get to work!
If you are unable to articulate what it is your business does other than ‘managed services’, you risk leaving it to your clients to define it on your behalf (unfair!). In an industry where ‘managed services’ could be anything from the management of their server to the implementation of a multi-site cloud archiving and Disaster Recovery (DR) project, it is important to clearly communicate to your market what it is you do so that you make it easier for them to connect with you. Double check your marketing and sales messaging to ensure that you are not actually communicating a generic message that overlooks saying what it is you ACTUALLY do for them.
Susanne Dansey is the Managing Director of Purple Cow Ideas Management – an organisation that facilitates a paradigm shift in the collaborative nature of the ICT Industry. You can follow her on Twitter and join the conversation on Facebook.