Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Dear Michael Dell: What Happened?


I’m sure I’m not the first to say I’m excited to see you back leading the company you built. It’s been discouraging to see an organization that had pushed innovation so far, for so long, get lapped: first by lower cost manufacturers, then by the transformational forces of tablet computing and platform as a service. All of a sudden, your company is stuck with a bunch of laptops and servers that no-one needs, and nothing in the pipeline that’s going to move the needle (Venue tablets and consumer electronics? Meh.). I’m sure it’s an uncomfortable place to be.

Note to you, Michael Dell: if it’s a great deal, and it’s in someone’s cart, it’s a safe bet they’re going to buy it.

Not to add fuel to the fire, but the whole online commerce / integrated supply chain thing you had going is also no longer a competitive advantage. I bought my first two laptops (in 2001 and 2004) using Dell’s online “configure to order” capabilities that everyone else benchmarked against, just so I could brag about how easy it was to my peers. Nowadays, I can build everything you had in the early/mid-2000s using off-the-shelf solutions (e.g., Salesforce.com, BigMachines), yet it feels like your ordering experience hasn’t evolved since then. Forget features—the visual design feels like something a second-tier reseller would run.

Even with all these challenges, the Dell site was the first place I went this year to purchase a Christmas present for my teenage son. My wife was tired of him monopolizing the family laptop for “homework”, so I decided to take the plunge and get him a machine that would last him a couple of years. When I got your newspaper circular announcing your CyberMonday deals, I saw my opportunity—an Inspiron 15R Touch for $499. It was a PC Mag Editor’s Choice to boot!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Leveraging crowdsourcing for efficiency in Customer Experience Management (CEM)

Recently posted to Slideshare, a whitepaper I recently authored on leveraging the capabilities of crowdsourcing to transform the maintenance and management of interactive marketing content.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Choose better consultants by getting engaged

I’ve spent the better part of my career working in and around professional services—living the consulting life, providing support to consultants, or buying their services—but it’s only been recently that I’ve truly started to appreciate why so many consulting relationships fail, end with suboptimal results, or are simply difficult/challenging/frustrating/etc. I don’t assume that this is new thinking; on the contrary, if you’ve gotten here first, feel free to call me a nincompoop. However, as the number of businesses embracing purpose-driven success models continues to grow, it feels like a great time to discuss the need for stronger alignment between businesses and the consultants they engage.

For me, the idea of “consultant engagement” started as a response to a recent, particularly challenging client project I managed. While our team achieved the outcomes documented in the statement of work, the project was rife with challenges that formal agreements and methodologies don’t address. We were unable to establish an effective working relationship with the client, and frequent process and personality issues occurred throughout the project lifecycle. While we have continued to seek and win business with this client as a result of our success, there is an ongoing wariness on both sides that represents a risk for future efforts.

Hence, the Consultant Engagement Model (image below). Most professional services buyers generally have the understanding and skill necessary to identify consultancies that align with their business needs. Vendor management training, detailed RFPs and selection matrices are all designed to get to the right answer regarding need/specialization alignment. But this is only half of what’s required to ensure an effective working relationship.

Consultant Engagement Model
Creative Commons BY SA
The other (and frequently missing) half focuses on evaluating purpose and cultural alignment between the business and the consultancy. Even as companies adopt principles of employee and customer engagement, consultants are still viewed as “hired guns”. While this perspective may not harm the buyer on the lower end of the value chain (e.g., maintenance services), potential risk grows as services move closer to the core purpose and strategic focus of the firm. If you’ve got a cold, you can get the help you need from a doctor, pharmacist or nurse. If you have a heart problem, you need a doctor—and not just any doctor, but a cardiologist.

While consultancies will often present themselves as providing a limitless portfolio of services (a primary source of the “hired gun” attitude), it’s crucial to understand which parts of the service portfolio reflect the consultancy’s core purpose and strategic focus. At the same time, it’s important to look critically at your organization, especially with regards to how success is measured and achieved. Armed with this information, buyers can conduct a more objective assessment of vendor alternatives, seeking consultants who will fit more naturally and seamlessly within their organization.

Our team on the above-mentioned project had all the required expertise. Our challenges resulted from misalignment between the purpose and culture of our client and that of our consultancy. The company was interested in a web technology replacement with no new features or experience improvements; the core identity of our consultancy is wrapped up in the creation and realization of new experiences and capabilities for forward-thinking businesses. Did the client get what they wanted? Absolutely. Did the relationship effectively serve the purpose and strategic alignment of both parties? No; and significant untapped value was left on the table as a result.

So, what can a buyer do to improve purpose / culture alignment and achieve greater value from consulting relationships? A few suggestions come to mind:
  • Get past the sales pitch, fast. Sales professionals are useful at the ends of the sales cycle. At the front-end, they can provide initial context and connections. At the back-end, they’re useful for negotiating the details and closing. In the middle, when you’re trying to refine your thinking and solution approach, as well as get a better idea of organizational fit, seek the involvement of service delivery professionals. Push for participation by consultants that would be involved on the project, even if it requires some financial commitment.
  • Take references seriously. When you request (and check) references, look for context that is similar to your own. By default, sales professionals will offer up successful client relationships that support their primary objective--selling new business. Keep pressing until you’re talking to organizations whose purpose and culture are similar to yours, and work to expand your query beyond a single, designated contact into multiple touchpoints in the reference organization.
  • Go running together. When you’re looking for an exercise partner, you’re more likely to benefit from the relationship if you both have similar fitness levels and goals. Like going for an initial training run with a potential partner, look for opportunities to bring in consultancies for short-term, lower risk efforts that enable you to work together and evaluate fitness. The more often you do this, the better you’ll become at making objective assessments of new consultancies that knock on your door.
As you work through your selection process, keep in mind that (contrary to prevailing wisdom) consultants are people. As people, they go through hiring processes that have been defined (like your company’s) to identify candidates with both the right experience and the character to succeed within the purpose and culture of their organization. Commit your professional services “hiring process” to finding consultancies that provide not only the specialization you need, but also the purpose and cultural alignment that will ensure your mutual success for the long run.