What it takes to deliver a project if you are not selling ‘off-the-peg’ media solutions
Behind the scenes of the VSN offices
A product is only as good as the company that offers it. Think of all those times you’ve loved a product, but refused to buy it ever again. Whether it’s snooty and indifferent sales people, a failure to deliver on what was promised, or a complete lack of after-sales support: a company can live or die on how it conducts itself rather than what it sells.
At VSN, we’ve always been aware of this. ‘Putting the customer first’ may be something of a cliché these days, but all too often – especially in the field of technology – mere lip service is paid to the concept. We don’t pay the idea of customer focus lip service, we live and breathe it.
Innovation and the development of products that truly meet the needs of customers is certainly the core of what we do, but that’s no enough. In the field of media solutions, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ product. So, regardless of how innovative our products are, if we don’t truly listen to the needs of our customers, then we’re already fighting a losing battle. The right product is only the right product when it’s put in the hands of the right customer, and supported throughout. Otherwise, it’s simply wrong, no matter how many bells and whistles it has.
With that in mind, we wanted to take you behind the scenes at the VSN offices, to discover how members of our team contribute to providing an exceptional customer experience. We’d like you to meet three of our key team members; Alvaro, Toni and Alex.
Sales can get a bad rep. All too often, when you mention the dreaded ‘S’ word, people conjure up images of dodgy car salespeople; smarmy, smug, promising the world, pushy, arrogant. Nobody wants to have to deal with sales.
But that’s sales done wrong. To me, when sales is done well, it involves a process of open and honest dialogue, where listening and understanding is just as important within a two-way interaction. I don’t want to ‘con’ anybody into a purchase by telling them what they want to hear; I want to listen to what they need, and then use my knowledge, expertise, creativity and critical thinking to move them towards a solution that genuinely meets that need.
Leads come to us at varying stages of ‘qualification’, so the steps taken to find that right solution can vary greatly. Some have simply heard of the brand and are interested in what we have to offer, without any clear vision as to what they want or need. A combination of more ‘general’ product demos and asking the right questions can help to tease out elements that the potential client may not have been consciously aware of themselves, and start to lead us on a path of building a mutual understanding.
I often like these types of clients because it requires me to be really analytical; to take lots of undefined and ambiguous pieces of information to gain an idea of the context that this particular customer is working in, tie them together with what I know of the industry and our offerings, and synthesise this all together to build an idea for a solution. This plays to what I like to consider my strengths; being analytical, insightful and creative.
Other times, a client comes in with specific and carefully outlined needs. This in many ways makes things clearer; so long as I keep my ears open then it’s simply a case of matching what we have to the tick-box needs that the potential client is asking for. But it still needs to be a process of open dialogue, because sometimes clients come in with preconceptions about what they need (or what they can get) that are actually hindering them from reaching the most optimum outcome. I have to discern what clients know they need, and what they think they need, but without ever being pushy or assuming I know best. Again, it comes back to honest dialogue, not two people talking at each other.
That means that sales is actually a pretty collaborative process; it’s essential to interact and work closely with other departments in order to move forward during the sales cycle. My experience is that the deeper the interaction and teamwork is during the sales phase, the more likely it is for the project to be awarded. And more than that, as the process progresses to project commission, I find that the more collaborative and open the sales process has been, the more smoothly everything else progresses. When sales is done well, then uncertainties and black holes are ironed out the beginning, expectations are set, and everybody moves forward in the process on the same page. It’s incredibly rewarding.
In essence, the biggest challenge of my role – but something that I (humbly…) believe I’ve come to excel at – is finding a match between client expectations and VSN’s offerings. The challenge isn’t to ‘convince’ the client of anything, it’s to find a solution that is self-evidently the right thing for them. And it’s a challenge I relish every time.
Project Development: Toni
It would be easy to mischaracterize my role within the process as the geeky engineer who sits in the back and makes grand plans for the future technological developments that will be added to the VSN range. People often see the process of a project as very linear, with product development being a ‘pre’ stage, and everything else being a ‘post’ stage. They often think of it in isolated chunks: a product is developed, marketing promotes it, sales secures a sale, the implementers implement it, and the support technicians come in at the end if needed. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Indeed, the reality is entirely different. Within VSN, whilst we have departmental roles, our levels of interaction are that of one big team. Whilst my title is ‘development manager’, when it comes to sales I am right in there helping with the evaluation of potential client needs. I essentially need to be, because VSN isn’t always selling ‘off-the-peg’ solutions. Our solutions are tailored to the needs of the client. So in the process of evaluating client needs and preparing a proposal, we need to be sure that what sales is offering is something we can deliver on: and I’m fairly fundamental to that.
The next part will be the development of technical documentation and often, a Proof of Concept. It’s here that I think VSN really excels; what we provide is comprehensive and detailed, but also to-the-point and clear in outlining not just technical specifications, but how they are going to meet the business case and objectives of the potential client.
As the Proof-of-Concept evolves, that’s where we often start to delve down deeper into the client needs, which may not have been necessarily clear to either party at the beginning. That really goes back to what I was saying at the start; a project isn’t linear, it’s iterative and collaborative.
Moreover, in situations where client needs are more complex, then involving me in the process allows us to look at ways in which we could engage in specific product developments or integrations: product developments that meet the specific request of that customer, but which – more than likely – will also inform future general product developments.
In this way, the process is incredibly symbiotic; yes, we develop products and offer them for sale, but as clients come to us with their needs, they also inform how our future products evolve.
To me, this idea is really important. People talk about proactive or reactive development. The benefit of proactive development is you can sometimes spot unique opportunities and innovations that clients never knew they wanted. The risk though is that you might be failing to meet fundamental client needs because you’re so enamored with the ‘clever idea’ you’ve just had that you just aren’t listening anymore. Conversely, if you have reactive development, you might be creating something that the client wants; but the two big risks are that the client doesn’t necessarily know fully what they need, and the process is always going to be lagging rather than leading.
Therefore, with the VSN method of involving development right within the sales process, we achieve the best of both worlds; a proactive and innovative approach to media solutions, but one that has its ear constantly to the ground and is directly in touch with the needs and desires of a customer. Proactive and reactive.
Project Deployment: Alex
After liaising with sales to ensure that all expectations are outlined and everybody is on the same page, then it’s time for me to meet with the client. I’m the person who is going to turn our promises into reality.
But meeting our technology promises is only half the game. The thing to remember is that even though what I’m implementing is technological, the actual process of implementation is driven heavily by logistics. What is the physical nature of the client’s building? What are their timeframes and work patterns? How can disruption be minimized, and handover made seamless? Developing a workflow that works with and for the customer is just as important as the actual technical process of implementation.
It isn’t a case of ‘whack the system in and walk off’. We start with a roadmap and a workflow, but the process as a whole is evolutionary in nature – a process of dialogue, negotiation and exploration together. The efficacy of our pre-sales and sales process – designed as it is to make sure everybody is on the same page from the beginning – generally minimizes project hiccups. But a project is almost a living, breathing thing, so accommodating change and new understandings along the way is simply inevitable. It’s this part of the job that I love; critical thinking, problem solving, and working together to find solutions.
Indeed, I’m proud of how closely I’m able to work with clients. The relationship ends up being so close that it almost becomes funny. Every member of the VSN team is equally knowledgeable and capable, but I’ve had more than a few clients who simply won’t agree on things when they are referred to my colleagues unless they know that I specifically have signed off on them and agree them to be the right course of action. I am proud because I think that’s a huge testament to how much of a personal relationship is developed over the course of the project.
Then comes systems training. VSN products have the advantage of being incredibly intuitive to use, but a part of making the handover process seamless is ensuring that users can hit the ground running when they finally move to ‘on air’ status. The thing to remember is that multiple different stakeholders will end up working with the product; all with varying levels of technical know-how. This means that training is very much an adaptive process; you can’t just sling a user manual at them and be done with it: just as with every stage of the VSN project process, you work with the client, not at them.
After this, the client is up and running, and in theory the process is finished. However, I work closely with the support team to make sure that the project is transferred successfully. It’s rarely needed, but should post-implementation support be required, then the whole team is well-versed in the history and nature of the client and the project process, and is ready to offer help as required.