Author Archives: Chuck Fritz

Signal To Noise

The other evening I attended a technology industry event at a somewhat-trendy bar downtown.  The event was intended to foster networking between newer entrepreneurial startups and more established tech companies.  I eventually found myself comparing notes with a guy I’ll call “Sam.”  Sam is responsible for sales at his company and as with most sales professionals; the conversation with Sam wasn’t too difficult.  He clearly wasn’t trying to confuse anyone.  As I watched Sam interact with others I began to suspect that he was an expert at getting his message across with an optimal signal-to-noise ratio.

Shortly after Sam and I began speaking we were joined by another individual.  I’ll call this guy “Ted”.  We made introductions around and then I asked Ted what his company did.  Ted seemed to struggle with his description of his business.  After Ted circled the bulls eye for several minutes Sam asked him to boil his business model down to the basic value proposition. Ted seemed to struggle with this too and so Sam helped him through the short conversation with some prompting.

I found the conversation about a basic value statement interesting.  Once we’d arrived at Ted’s business the conversation became less interesting.  Ted began expounding the benefits of his favorite flavor of technology.  Before I wandered off I heard things like “no viruses”, “lower cost of ownership” and “a true Unix operating system…”.  Not much real information and not much in a message structure that I found entertaining.

Here are a few quick tips for the “Teds” out there:

  1. Always be ready to quickly describe your value proposition. You should practice that statement regardless of your position in the company.
  2. Keep the value proposition short and relatively non-technical. It doesn’t need to be so simple that Uncle Joe could understand it, unless Uncle Joe works in your industry, but it does need to be basic enough that others in your industry understand quickly, with minimum effort.
  3. If someone asks you what you do and you are able to respond with a concise answer then by all means also give them your contact information!  Hand them your business card; provide them with a URL or something else memorable.  Write that information on a matchbook, cocktail napkin or just scratch it into their forearm with your car keys.  Don’t assume that someone will remember your business contact information after a casual conversation, especially if that causal environment also includes libations.
  4. Read your audience.  Be cautious about providing too much detail unless you are confident the person you are speaking to understands your topic and wants to dive into it.  There are some people I just don’t get into elevators with.  Zealots are always near the top of that list.

COBOL.NET and Cuff links

I recently sat through several vendor demos for a client who is in the market for a health care claims administration platform. These systems are large ticket items and the vendors ranged from large and well entrenched vendors with years of experience in the market to small and relatively new vendors with fewer than ten clients.

Several of the key decision makers for the client were very focused on whether or not the various vendors invited to participate had chosen to make their presentation in person or via the web. While this seemed to make little difference with regard to the product overviews once each was under way it was discussed several times throughout the two day period during which the demos took place. Each vendor was made aware of the view of the client and made their decision to travel or to demo via the web and phone from an informed perspective.

Several vendors traveled to Des Moines for their presentation and at least one chose to do so exclusively via the web. One well regarded vendor with significant market-share chose to send sales staff to present in person. The two salesmen from Vendor ‘X’ arrived to make their presentation in well-tailored suits with ties. The lead salesman was wearing a shirt with French cuff and cuff links.  So – from the client perspective – these individuals invested the proper time and preparation for their presentation.  So far, so good!

The Vendor X  presentation began with the normal pleasantries and they passed out copies of the Powerpoint slide deck in color. As the salesmen walked through their presentation they connected a technical resource via Webex who spoke in greater detail about the different business features and advantages of their system.  To me it was apparent that the salesmen in the room were involved in the presentation but weren’t in fact doing the demonstration.  Maybe that is too fine a distinction to make and I’m not even sure that all present that day would agree with me.  The two guys in suits made a fine impression regardless of their actual function or purpose.

About one hour into the two hour presentation/demonstration I stepped away for 5 minutes.  When I returned to the room they were covering the underlying technology of one of their core modules. The salesmen were talking enthusiastically about the virtues of COBOL.NET. Wow! I did a double-take and rather than interrupt and expose my obvious ignorance I quickly Googled COBOL.NET to confirm that the language actually existed. Sure enough, it’s a Microfocus product.

I know my client was satisfied that the various presentations given were a success and that there are several vendors with products that we want to further investigate. That investigation will include site visits to out-of-state technology vendors. We need to ensure that they aren’t two guys working in a garage.  (hmmm….)

If we (Source Allies) can take anything away from this it is that customer perceptions are very important and that some non-technical customers may have some very specific requirements that have nothing to do with technology. Seller beware!

After the demos wrapped up the client’s staff and I compared notes internall.  I did not bother to explain to the client that ‘two men in a garage’ is a reference to the founders of Hewlett Packard, a really large company by any standard today.  I also didn’t bother to give them my deep thoughts on COBOL.NET although we covered that briefly.  As for the suits and cuff links, well quite frankly I like wearing cuff links.

Functionality, flexibility and a clean user interface seemed to clearly carry the most weight in the analysis of the applications.  People seemed to appreciate a good design.  I am sure many nontechnical people can’t describe a well designed system but actually do know one when they see one.

I don’t know how many silent points were gained or lost by vendors for choosing to arrive in person or to demo via the web from out of state. All vendors did a good job of covering their respective applications.  I’d hate to think that a vendor would loose because they demo’ed a system online while a less effective application would fare better because a person arrived to hand out Powerpoint slides they had ‘thoughtfully’ printed and assembled in advance.  That doesn’t really seem like the wave of the future.  Some vendors traveled 6 hours in a car each way to make their presentation.  Another vendor had staff travel farther, by commercial air carrier.  Wonder who pays for those expenses in the end? darth

If I get to leave you with a couple of thoughts I’d like them to be that we should always try to understand what our clients’ hot buttons. While those issues or items may not make sense to us we should make note of them and in some manner take them into consideration when working with that client.

Can you imagine having a great product from both a functionality and a technology perspective and ultimately loosing the sale to a larger competitor with a product written in COBOL.NET? Think of the time we’d probably spend analyzing what went wrong.  I’d rather not find myself in that situation – but I’m certain those guys in cufflinks are going to close another deal sooner or later and COBOL.NET will not slow them down too much with some of their prospective clients.

Business Development

Kevin Bacon Is The Center Of The Universe

Kevin Bacon Is The Center Of The Universe

Working in Rapid City, SD on a consulting engagement for First Administrators (a client of Source Allies that is a subsidiary of Wellmark) I was responding to an invitation to get together with colleagues from a former employer, MetLife.  Looking at the email addresses of my friends and former coworkers reminded me of the social pyschology research done to understand connectedness and social networks.

MetLife used to have a larger IT presence in West Des Moines and had, at one time, about 300 West Des Moines-based employees in total.  Most of the MetLife IT staff have moved on to other companies and the MeLife presence for business and IT in WDM is now much smaller.  Most of my former coworkers are still in the work force and have jobs here in Central Iowa.  A quick read of the email addresses reveal that many of these people are working in IT and/or management roles at companies that include IFMC, Wellmark, Principal, Marsh, Aviva, John Deere Credit, Wells Fargo and (still) MetLife.

One of the facts that was a little surprising was that there were several people at each of those companies.  Often the people were clustered by professional area of focus.  For example two HR people that I worked with at MetLife are both now at Wellmark.    There are several factors that likely had influence on that result; obviously companies have to be hiring when people are looking for work and it also is helpful to know someone at the target company if you want to find appropriate employment opportunities there.

Stanley Milgram is the psychologist most commonly associated with Small World Theory although he is hardly the person who developed the original concept and many psychologists and mathematicians have done work in this field since.  The book “Six Degrees: the science of a connected age” by Duncan Watt covers the related theories at a high level (and so does Wikipedia).  Milgram is probably better known for his work on Obedience to Authority than for social psychology work on network theory.

So – this leave me stuck in South Dakota when a large group of former coworkers will be gathering tomorrow evening at The Tavern in WDM for drinks.  I’m going to miss that opportunity to catch up on how they’re all doing professionally, as well as personally, but I’m reassured to know that when business contracts social networks expand.  Quite frankly – my social network is growing while I sit here in the hotel.  I guess I’ll relax and look for updates on those people later – using  tools like Facebook and LinkedIn.  Who knows?  Maybe something discussed Thursday will open the door to a new client (or a new engagement with an existing one) for Source Allies.