Customer to Vendor: "How can you have a solution if don't understand my problems?"

We are all guilty of it. In this time of manufacturers being so “customer focused” and attempting to align with customer needs, have networking vendors just gone plain “solutions crazy”? I think so. Webster, Oxford, and other dictionary publishers are kind enough to leave the definition of a solution generic. Anyone can make the argument that they build, sell, or consult about solutions. "Solutions" might be one of the most exploited definitions in the English language. News flash: just because something fits a loose definition doesn’t mean it is a real solution. Example: [customer]: I have 8” of empty rack space in my network closet. [vendor]: Have I got a solution for you! Buy this new Ethernet switch – it’s 7.5” tall. Networking manufacturers have manipulated the term “solution” since the widespread adoption of the LAN as an Enterprise business requirement. However, my experience has shown one simple thing: if you want to gain more relevance and build a better relationship with a customer, you have to first understand them beyond infrastructure needs. Here’s a simple example that I have used many times: as a person is driving to work they get a flat tire. They’re on the side of the road with no cell phone, no money, and it’s raining. Is the right solution cash, an umbrella, a towing service, or a spare tire? Any of these options may just be a patch to a bigger problem. They all may get the person on the road soon enough, but it won’t prevent the same situation from happening again. You pull over to help this person out. You hold an umbrella and offer a little elbow grease to get the tire changed. The motorist thanks you and heads to their office to make the conference call because they don't have home office capability. If they did, they wouldn’t have gotten a flat tire, would have saved money on gas, wear and tear on the car, and reduced the carbon footprint of the company they work for. Asking a friendly “where are you headed” would have created an opportunity for further discussion and changed the whole interaction. Vendors need to be less focused on the spare tire because customers are already aware they need it. The solution focus needs to be on making the whole working experience better. The flat tire is just the conversation starter. The moral is that if you only look skin-deep at a customer’s situation, you’ll never help them solve their business problems. “Solutions” aren’t boxes. They’re not groups of products either. They aren’t even combinations of generic products and services. Solutions are customized. They are so obviously designed to solve a business issue you don’t need a 75 chart PowerPoint presentation and a 3 hour meeting to communicate their value. Most importantly, solutions don’t address a 10 foot view. They need to systemically impact a business. Increase productivity, reduce carbon footprint, provide competitive advantage, open new ways to generate revenue, and make life easier for the employees and the customer’s customers. Marketing groups within every major vendor have done a great job of convincing their employees, their clients, and the market that everything they make is a solution. It is up to the people who are in the customer’s faces on a daily basis to guide their clients through the confusion and know their customer’s business drivers. Only then -- using a combination of portfolio knowledge AND business issues -- can true solutions be created. This process will move your customer forward along their mission and elevate the vendor’s status in the value chain from a “box vendor” to a valued partner and consultant. If someone tells you they have a solution but they can’t demonstrate they know your business, you need to ask yourself: is it a solution for them or for you? Bottom line: Know your customer.

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