Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Prospects? Looking good ....

I made the trip downtown to the LA Auto Show this weekend. A few years ago I had been at HP World, but had stayed nearby and had missed the opportunity of driving into the city and to experience the “pleasures” of LA’s freeways. The LA Auto Show is a much bigger spectacle than the Orange County event I attended in early October (check out the posting of October 10, ‘08 “This one’s a keeper?”) and the car manufacturers used this one to showcase their new cars as well as displaying futuristic concept cars. The picture above is of the Lamborghini stand where a large crowd had gathered to take a look at a bevy of beautiful models on display – along with the usual “booth candy.”

As is typical these days, many of the up-market manufacturers had their cars roped off behind barriers. Whether this is done to create an air of exclusivity, or because the cars were just too fragile to stand up to the heavy volume of visitors eager to get in behind the wheel, I am not all that sure. But it does bring out my competitive nature, and I work hard to get invited inside the ropes. Yes, I could visit the manufacturer’s showrooms, but this is always a lot more fun.

This year, I started with Maserati and after a brief exchange with the salesman I was invited to view the cars more closely. Yes, I sat behind the wheel, and yes, I talked the salesman into giving me one of their magnificent brochures – more a book than a pamphlet. Armed with the glossy Maserati book I then headed for the Aston Martin stand! After a brief exchange with the booth staff I was once again invited back behind the ropes to look over the new DBS, as featured in the latest James Bond movie. Even though it was under lock and key, even for invited guests, I was still able to spend time behind the wheel of the V8 Vantage. Not as much room inside as in the just-released Maserati GT-S, but I managed to talk Aston Martin out of a “boxed” book on the DB9 / DBS. Now clutching both the Aston Martin and Maserati brochures ,easily recognizable even from a distance , I found my way to the Ferrari stand.

This turned out to be more challenging, as I overheard one of the Ferrari attendants turn down a request with the very curt response “I am sorry, but only current Ferrari customers are being invited to view the cars.” Time to change strategy! I am a prospect and I am comparing the Maserati GT-S with the new Ferrari California - don’t they share the same engine, transmission and brakes?” I enquired with as much fervor as I could muster. And then, maintaining eye contact, I added very quickly “if you don’t mind, and if there aren’t too many current Ferrari customers on the stand, could I take a look?”

“Come back in ten minutes and I will see if you can come inside the ropes,” was the formal response. After ten minutes, I caught the salesman’s eye and he nodded to the staff to let me in. I enjoyed a good twenty minutes sitting inside the various Ferrari’s on display, and the Ferrari California and the Maserati GT-S were indeed very similar mechanically, targeting the same audience, but they do not share the same engine and drive-train! For me, the Maserati looked the more appealing car and definitely the best price-performance offering at the auto show.

For as long as I have been on the vendor side of the community, I have always been interested in the balance that is needed between servicing customers and attracting prospects. With so much written today about becoming customer centric and for putting the customer first, do we forget about attracting new customers? Are prospects being given little opportunity to step inside the ropes, to better present their requirements and explain their business issues, or are we simply reserving time for our established customers? While there is understandable downside from ignoring your customers, isn’t there just as much downside – perhaps even more – from missing an opportunity to listening to prospects.

Recently I was in Campbell, California and, arriving early, I took a walk up the main street. I have to admit I was very surprised to run into the Golden Gate Showroom! I have included a picture of it here but no, Transactional Data Management (TDM) software wasn’t on display or being sold from this shop.

Showrooms, particularly those of car manufacturers, have played a significant role in attracting prospects over the years. While we still have far to go before we see major infrastructure software components for sale at the local corner shop, watching the crowds drawn to Apple’s stores suggests that the next generation of IT executives may find this an attractive option for them. But I am not holding my breath in anticipation that this will be something GoldenGate pursues any time soon!

Building the business model that strikes the right balance between the needs of the customer and the need of the prospects, shouldn’t be all that difficult. As I found it pretty easy to communicate the right message to the Ferrari salesman, and to strike up a dialogue with him – yes, I did have him open the hood of the new Ferrari California so that I could examine the new 4.7 liter engine in more detail - good companies will always be quick to respond to prospect inquiries. And these good companies will also be quick to recognize opportunities for their products and be able to easily steer the dialogue into an open exchange on their suitability and value proposition. Sami Akbay, VP of Marketing and Product Management at GoldenGate, suggested “companies that fail to find the balance between supporting customers and servicing prospects, will always run the grave risk of missing that one opportunity that can catapult the company to the next level! The vehicle for growth can only be fueled from successfully attracting a broad community of prospects.”

In the blog posting of October 10th, ’08 “This one’s a keeper?” I looked at how the economy was impacting the introduction of new technology and how the pool of prospects for new products was shrinking with each quarter I wrote of how … technology and product roadmaps are no longer the full story and holding tightly onto soon-to-be-legacy equipment has nothing to do with emotions but rather, non-existent cash flow.” The context for this observation was the declining availability of older systems from third-party leasing companies. In other words, prospects for additional major hardware components, including complete servers, were having a tough time getting what they wanted as more customers held on tightly to what they already had! With no lessening in transaction growth, what were they really going to do?

And I am beginning to wonder – will this generate another sea-change in system and server usage? As the transaction volume continues to climb, will this simply push customers into offloading less important transactions to more readily available platforms like Linux and Windows? Not as part of a grand vision or major strategy shift, but out of necessity and have we overlooked the prospects for this simply because we remained tightly focused on the customers of our current product set? Can we say we remain confident in our business model if we miss talking to these prospects?

I am a huge supporter of all things NonStop – from the first time I encountered the architecture I became hooked – but I see it now as a part of a bigger picture. Not as a return to application silos but as an integral part in our support of a “mixed workload” of transactions. Some transactions have to be processed, no matter what the circumstances. Whether I am an existing NonStop user offloading less significant transactions to commodity platforms, or simply an existing user of commodity platforms wrestling with how to “harden” the environment to better support a select group of transactions and a prospect for NonStop,, I really could benefit from stepping inside the ropes and looking at the options. But will I have to clutch on tight to my IBM and Microsoft brochures before anyone pays me any attention? And will my business questions find an audience?

For me, gaining access to roped-off areas in the exhibition hall is a game. I have done it many times before, and my intentions have not been completely honorable. But even as I continued with the game last weekend, I did see something I liked and will probably pursue the Maserati next year. And this is what bothers me the most when it comes to technology companies – without finding the right balance between customers and prospects, could we miss that opportunity that lifts us to that next level? Even for a company the size of HP, attracting prospects and working with them is not only just as critical, but potentially is all that separates them from stumbling and missing that one big opportunity!

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