Do you recall the classic fable?
The master craftsman Daedalus built wings from feathers and wax to escape Crete with his son Icarus. He told Icarus to not fly too close to the sun, as the wax would melt. Icarus — of course — ignored his father's warning and fell to his death.
Gravity wins again.
Without being unduly over-dramatic, I see the same scene played out countless times for those of us that work as IT vendors. Many of us aspire to be truly consultative to our customers and clients — but the gravity of having to sell specific products and services (with assigned quotas) inevitably drags us down to where we started.
If we fly too close to the sun, we can fall very far indeed.
But it's somewhat paradoxical: the IT industry is changing fast. Simply having a better widget isn’t any guarantee of success; what really matters is your customers’ ultimate success. And that demands a consultative approach.
We often talk the talk, but walking the walk is proving to be much more difficult.
These days, IT transformation is becoming the norm.
At the same time, the fundamental enterprise IT model has to be re-invented: to a builder-broker of value-added IT services delivered with a healthy dose of relevant business context. The new IT business model drives a re-thinking of the organization model, which in turn drives the selection of technology and vendors.
During times of transition and transformation, most IT shops aren’t exactly clear on what they need, or why. And confused customers don’t buy stuff.
A quick story?
Many years ago, I realized it was finally time to get serious with my personal finances. I knew I should be thinking about investments, portfolios and all of that, but wasn’t quite sure how to go about it.
I found a financial planner who patiently walked me through different models, and how those models translated into specific financial products. We came up with an executable plan.
And, yes, she ended up selling me a bunch of stuff — because I knew exactly what I was buying, and why.
This demand for exec-level consultative advice isn’t lost on the better customer-facing people at most IT vendors. They can sense that their clients are looking for a model, a strategy, a plan — something that can be executed — which then later translates into specific requirements for products and services.
Because the IT companies they work for aren’t meeting this need well, they may set about industriously fashioning their own consultative wings from feathers and wax.
And — like Icarus — at some point gravity wins, and they find themselves falling back to pushing products.
The Other Side
I’ve worked for several IT vendors over the last 30 years, and know a lot of people who are doing the same. It doesn’t matter where you work, there’s always a clear metric on how your company is doing: the stock price.
Get punished multiple times, and you’re now M&A bait for a larger company. As most senior management are also shareholders, the incentives should be clear. Investors aren't really into delayed gratification.
It’s not that field-facing organizations are blind to the consultative relationship their customers crave; it’s just that the measurement system works so strongly against it. I can’t tell you how many sales planning meetings I’ve been in where the two, incongruous thoughts are shared at the same time: “We need to be more consultative” and “how are we going to make the numbers this quarter?”.
The stock market rewards vendors who sell a lot of product. Gravity wins again.
Enter The Professional Services Consultant
Many IT vendors have attempted to close this gap by establishing a professional services arm. If the customer desires a consultative relationship, here are the people in our organization who do that sort of thing. And some of them I've met are very good at what they do.
Consultants are measured on utilization and billable hours: they’re pushing a product, and the product is their people.
Professional services organizations embedded within IT product vendors face an additional gravitational pull: the sales team wants to close a product deal as soon as possible, and may often perceive a consultative engagement as an unnecessary delay.
And pity the unwary IT vendor consultant who naively makes a different recommendation than what’s already been proposed by the product team ...
Who Will Close The Gap?
And they do — after a fashion.
If I’m being critical, they often aren’t as deeply knowledgeable about the technology (past, present, future) as the vendors who build the stuff.
More importantly, I think they aren’t exactly incentivized to transfer important skill sets and intellectual property, which — of course — is precisely what the customer ultimately wants.
One way of looking at the IT industry landscape is to categorize the various players in terms of the intellectual property they bring to the table.
Consultants understand business process and analysis: where are you today, where do you want to go, how will you get there?
And service providers understand operational process — how to run IT like a business, and offer services that people want to consume. All useful and necessary.
You can see the gap from a CIO perspective — who can explain how these three disciplines should come together around a specific enterprise IT context? All three are important, but it’s the combination that is desired.
I'd like to have an answer, but I don't.
However, I do know that the IT vendor(s) that figure out how to do this effectively — and sell a lot of product or service in the process — will likely escape gravity altogether.
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