Will you matter in 5 years? (part 1)

KodakThe business world is changing.  The precursor to this change was nicely summed up in the book “Who Moved My Cheese?”  Since 2001 when it was written, my cheese has been moved multiple times.  And over the next 5 years, it will be moved again.  Perhaps several times.

What is my cheese, and why is it moving, and who would do such a thing?  The book looks at lots of different cheese, but for our purpose, cheese is my client, my product, my service, or my industry – perhaps all of these.  Why is it moving?  Data.  Lots of it. And that data is right where you probably didn’t want it to be…right in your client’s hands, and without any help from you.

How did your client get that data, and frankly, so what?  You’re a salesperson, and you are still part of the equation.  Aren’t you?

No.  Your client doesn’t need you anymore.

At least not in the same way.  Take the rapidly disappearing manufacturer’s representative firm for example.  In many industries, this sales model was used because it offered instant and proven sales representation to a client base at a fixed cost of sales.  This was, and sometimes still is, an attractive model for new or smaller companies who cannot afford a dedicated sales force.  In some cases, it is still an appropriate model for larger companies, but that seems to be less and less the case as time marches on.

Why is that?  Who moved the client’s cheese?  Although it is a bit simplistic, you can blame the internet for that.  One of the chief duties of a rep firm was to bring information to the resellers of the products they represented.  The sales rep always had a car trunk full of cut sheets, price books, and demo samples.  But more and more, resellers were getting this information off of the internet.  Even scarier, their end-users were getting the same information off the internet as well.  Clients were getting smarter, and sales people were mattering less and less.

To compound the problem, technology was getting easier.  It used to take a $100 an hour technician to install a network device in a building, and then it needed to be configured, programmed, adjusted, connected to some kind of host system upstream, monitored, serviced, and occasionally updated.  That has all changed, and I came to see that change through two examples I witnessed.

The client becomes the salesperson and installer:

I was in the lobby of a Marriott hotel meeting a colleague.  In the lobby I saw someone up on a ladder, removing a security camera and replacing it with another one.  Curious, I walked around the front of him to see what company he worked for.  I was shocked when I saw that it said “Marriott.”  I asked him what he was doing, and he said the camera had failed, that he had called a few companies to come out and fix it, and after receiving lackadaisical replies from a few vendors and high prices for the camera and the labor to install it, he went to the internet, found that the model he had was no longer available, picked a new one with better specifications at half the price, and ordered it on Amazon.  He went to YouTube to find a video on how to install it, and was about to go to the system’s workstation to verify that the camera was now working.

I knew that the camera was not supposed to be available directly to an end-user; it was to be purchased only through factory-trained, authorized dealers.  But there it was, mounted on the ceiling, just like the old one, and working fine.  So the guy who usually worked on hotel plumbing and electrical problems was now doing the work that his now former security systems integrator was doing.  Ouch.

My 80 year old mother is the same as your Cisco-certified network engineer:

Well, perhaps not.  Yet here she was, casually mentioning that she had recently installed a new wireless router in her house.  What in the not-too-distant past took a highly trained technician with factory certification, probably sent by the cable TV company at a high price and a “we’ll be at your house between 8:00 AM and noon” attitude, had been done by my very un-technical 80 year old mother after her second glass of wine.  Ouch again.

So just how safe are you in your industry right now?  If your clients are replacing you with themselves, what do you have to offer them?  Cheaper prices?  Good luck on that race to the bottom.  Only one person gets to be the cheapest, and if you’ve been reading this website over the years, that certainly doesn’t describe you.  Better service?  Perhaps.  But will your service even be needed in the future?  For example, in an age of driverless cars, will we need as many insurance agents, body repair shops, driving instructors, etc?

Our clients are getting smarter, technology is getting easier and more reliable, and everything you need to become a pseudo-expert is a mouse click away.  By the way, have you noticed that I have not used the more common word customer instead of client?  You sell things to a customer.  You provide a long-term relationship that may include products one day, services the next, and free advice on another.  Your cheese has been moved, or it very likely is about to be moved.  It will move slower if you are dealing with clients, not customers.

Nervous?  I hope so.  If you and your company are going to survive, you need to look and act very differently in 5 years than you look and act today.  What is your next step?  Stay tuned for the second part of this series to find out.

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