Includes discussion about social networking, social media, challenger sales, consultative sales, solution sales, collaboration, global account management.
JP Rangaswami has been writing extensively over the last few weeks about the nature of collaboration and the idea of the Social Enterprise, a term used by Salesforce.com to refer to the use of social networking style technology within companies and outside companies, with their customers, suppliers, investors, alliance partners, future employees and so on. The big prize here is enhanced collaboration, although there should be other benefits also arising from the general use of social networking connecting to the outside world, monitoring and influencing the way in which customers and others talk about the company, its products, its customer services etc., rather than simply being unaware and non-participative.
I have been trying to bring about collaboration for over 25 years, often out of necessity in front of the customer and in all cases where I have been trying to get a customer and a supplier to collaborate in the transfer of value that we call commerce i.e. to get something bought and sold. In all cases I have found it essential to understand the vested interests of the individuals involved. On rare and sometimes unsettling occasions I have found that people are acting for the greater good, for example for the company or for the industry, but their personal investment in an initiative is likely to be proportional to the amount of personal gain that they hope to get from it. This personal gain may take many forms, such as some benefit gained by a small tribe of people which they represent or the improvement of their standing in a wider group. When these events are seemingly altruistic, it makes me uncomfortable because it is so rare (see my comments on trust, below).
During a long career of numerous successes in complex sales, management and customer relationships, an area conspicuous by failure has been my attempts to introduce new tools to make internal collaboration work better in my own firms. I am a long-standing believer in the idea that the most effective sales technique is to make customers newly aware of problems or opportunities, to develop their appreciation of the value of these in business terms before proposing solutions that meet the needs. This approach, coined the Challenger Sale by authors Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson is demonstrably superior to what has gone before and must ultimately therefore become prevalent and ubiquitous to the extent that the supply of sales talent able to use it, or organisational structures and tools able to support the sales people, are limited. So, I’ve forever been trying to implement the tool that will create synergy by coaxing talented sales people, product managers, in-house consultants, far-sighted managers, marketing people, pre-sales consultants, customer support people, thought leaders and so on, jointly to craft and circulate those ideas and customer challenges. This is no more relevant than in the world of technology sales, where the technology can allow the customer’s business to do something that it previously could not, and financial markets, where the name of the game is essentially innovation and information management in the handling of risk.
So the need is there but the solutions have been lacking. CRM tools in the 1980s and 90s were efficient ways of storing and retrieving detailed information about customers and opportunities but anyone with the skills and intelligence to be at the top of the sales tree saw the time to fill this stuff in as a tax and the potential payback as nil or even negative: the risk of others taking real insight and using it inappropriately was actually low but seemed too large to accept given that there was little to suggest that there was any upside. In any case, the focus of CRM systems was not on innovation and recycling of great ideas relating to the customers’ marketplace.
I believe that this comes down to two fundamental facets of collaboration: trade and trust. How many times have you asked someone for some information or an opinion and received the response “Let’s set up a call to discuss it”? In fact, why are our diaries packed with so many standing conference calls which are, ostensibly, simply to collect a routine set of information? Occasionally the preference for a call is self-management i.e. the individual knows that they will not have the discipline to turn to this chore unless someone else books an hour into their diary and makes them step through the process to get the work done in the meeting. However, more often, I believe, this is because we instinctively feel that we should try to get something instantly in return from giving up some information, or else we worry about the context of giving a written response and don’t yet know enough about the other party to trust that they will act appropriately. So collaboration becomes a series of transactions, or trades, starting with small gives-and-gets until trust is established.
Payback in these small trades may take several forms such as information, insight, ideas, commitment, physical help, exposure / further publishing or being perceived to act in a certain way (development of a useful reputation). Those of us who enter cautiously into the world of self-publishing (e.g. through blogs) do so, mostly, with the expectation that we will gain exposure and, potentially, establish a reputation for something. We go through the difficult process of marshalling and refining our thoughts and setting them into a well ordered article on a purely speculative basis in the hope that we can prompt some form of feedback, validation, affirmation or at least criticism. Because the potential readership is large, we feel it is worth taking the risk that this investment may prove pointless because we may reach a large number of people or alternatively a rare collection of people outside our normal circle of acquaintances who share an interest in the subject matter.
But most people are not natural self-publicists - and there is not much to entice them to overcome the barriers of the risk of being seen as foolish and the substantial effort required to produce something useful. Within a firm few people perceive any potential for payback from contributing information to a collaboration-group outside of their face to face teams. When I have a meeting with a friend or close business colleague I can be confident that he or she knows about me and my interests and will provide a valuable service of filtering out information that is not relevant. A good example of this is the high value of global account management. There are several reasons why global account management makes sense for some firms but chief among these is that it enables the firm to come together better in front of the customer, particularly in the arena of solution selling which combines pieces from multiple parts of the firm. Sales people, by their nature or education, tend to focus to the exclusion of other things on the risk trade-off associated with hitting their target. They will often actively eliminate other interference or distraction from the focal point, including anything which will change the scope of the purchase, such as employing a truly consultative sales approach. However, global account managers have something of value to them for which it is worth trading some element of collaboration: they have information, insight and access to more senior contacts. So it becomes worthwhile spending time with global account managers directly and the global account manager becomes a de facto solution sales channel. One of the skills of global account management is to use this interaction to create a more collaborative team approach to a sale, so the process starts with an insistence on face to face meetings and telephone calls in exchange for the passing over of some information.
In any close physical group I can also maximise my opportunity for instant payback and pick up on verbal or non-verbal clues that the members of the group expect me to contribute more. Perhaps most importantly, the familiarity allows us all to build up trust.
Trust takes us through the lean periods. Previous experience gives us the confidence to make contributions in the knowledge that a) we will eventually get something in return and b) the others in the group will be predictable in the way that they treat the contribution. For example they will not feel inhibited about letting me know if it isn’t making sense to them and they will not re-transmit the messages without ensuring that others understand the context. I think this explains the enduring popularity of email. JP Rangaswami feels that
"E-mail has been the bane of collaboration, an unfit-for-purpose tool that has often been used to accentuate and enhance division and discord rather than collaboration. Yet for most people it is the standard tool of collaboration" [confused of calcutta: On Collaboration]
In my view, the tool you know how to use is often the best one for the job. We are all comfortable with the subtleties of email etiquette. Of course it's based on trust that the others in the closed group (the recipient list) have a similar level of understanding of the importance of, say, not forwarding text which contains comments that could be dangerous when taken out of context. So to me, this is the first hint that virtual collaboration is starting to inform real life behaviour.
Trust is about being predictable. I don’t need to believe that you are going to look after my best interests, I just need to know that you will react in a way that I can predict. Rangaswami points out that “taking the bullet for the team" is no longer a sensible action at work because the payback is no longer reliable: the institutional memory of firms have been destroyed by job turnover and lack of employer and employee loyalty. Therefore we’ve seen the growth of networks of contacts that transcend the firm which have a higher allegiance value than the firm itself. These networks, collections of friends and ex-colleagues, often spread about geographically, are well served by the tools of social media.
So is it really futile to try to apply tools to engender enterprise collaboration for the difficult stuff (cross-functional and fluid, fast-moving initiatives that create real value for customers and stakeholders)? My hypothesis is that the times are changing and the trend is positive.
Computer games have had a number of positive and unexpected effects on modern society. Not only have they turned out to be a positive force for keeping young minds engaged and active, as opposed to passive pastimes such as watching television, but also they have built into every young person in the land the model that says if you want to get rewarded then you have to work your way up to the next level. Also, if you want to get to the next level then you must persevere in the face of adversity at this level and explore all the options of how to move on. I present this point as an analogy: ask any person under 25 about social networking and they will probably explain that they have been using Facebook, Twitter and a myriad other chat forums and virtual community tools since they were eleven and nowadays that they often have them all integrated, including LinkedIn.
I believe that this familiarity with social media and the looser risk / reward experience, combined with the rising importance of networks beyond the firm, means that the community of people that makes up the majority in commercial enterprises is becoming progressively more inclined to collaborate on a speculative basis and with people beyond our normal community of trusted individuals. In effect, the experience of social media tools is teaching us how to collaborate more.