The real reason robot analysts don´t roam the earth yet

Horses for sources had an amusing Fools Day Story about Robot Analysts replacing human analysts. The idea is not so crazy after all and has been tried in more primitive forms and certainly with less fancier names than Phil Fersht has coined. At least some advisory firms have tried to automate and make their sourcing templates so standardized that even a robot can read, understand, and respond to them! Some have gone further and tried, once the vendor responses are in, to use a machine to easily count the Ys and Ns to the series of interrogatory questions, to calculate the $ value of all the Ns, to add it to the vendor´s quoted prices and then to rank the vendors by price! Integrate all that into a database driven online tool fitted with a reverse auction engine and voila, you have made the software soul for your robot advisor! If daily life became that simple and orderly, many of us in the outsourcing business would immediately turn jobless!   

I have watched the sourcing advisory industry evolve over a decade now and have seen how some advisors have tried hard to standardize the sourcing process through detailed and precise templates and so on. Invariably on such advisor led deals, vendors have complained mostly to themselves how such straight jacketing kills their otherwise abundant creativity. The buyers have generally complained how little these advisor mandated processes and templates reflect the unique nuanced rich realities of their business operations. The advisors have generally complained about how little the clients listen to them and how little the vendors comply with them and how they then need to stay on with the client post contract to clean up the mess and ensure the vendor delivers the promised value. In the end, everyone finds a way to do their dharma and move on – the client convinces the advisor to customize their templates, the vendors find ways to make robotic evaluation of their offer difficult, and the advisors give up once again on their vision of an automated, mature, robotic sourcing market!

So, now that we know why we don´t have robot analysts among us, do we really miss them? In 2014, the sourcing world does seem more livable without them, but hey, we are game for a challenge! Bring them on and we will find a way to humanize and clutter them up and frustrate them too! 

Is Insight selling only Solution Selling in a new bottle?

While researching the solution selling topic, I came across a couple of interesting articles announcing the death of solution selling and one of them even announcing the birth of the new kid on the jargon block called ´Insight Selling´. You can check them out for yourself (the HBR one will require a subscription) here and here.

Here is a gist of the HBR article since you probably won´t have access: The authors argue that the now outdated ´solution selling´ depends on the client having a problem which they don´t know how to solve, which is then the opportunity for the vendor to come in and solve. Apparently, most of the big companies today are far ahead in the maturity curve when it comes to what and how they want to buy which makes life difficult if not impossible for solution sellers. In the audio interview with one of the authors at HBR, there is even a ridiculous comparison between solution selling and a visit to a car dealer which is very different today compared to what it was a couple of decades ago, armed as the customer is with the information from the internet and so on.

The two minor issues I have with this point of view are

a) Many big companies (especially those in Europe) are hardly mature in sourcing or even in clearly defining their problems and they are nowhere close to asking vendors to take ownership for outcomes. This means solution selling is on very fertile ground on many many such client situations even today and

b) Comparing a complex B2B sale to buying a car from a dealer is pure nonsense. I don´t want to waste time dismantling the author´s argument here but you can do that yourself easily. This means that solution selling adds or should add much more value than any car dealer ever added to a car sale.

The major issue I have is that the new concept introduced by the HBR authors (Insight Selling) has also been around for ever and it is no different from solution selling. A solution addresses whatever problem or goal the client has and invariably incorporates innovative insights about the client´s business. Putting it another way, Solution Selling already includes Insight Selling and any good solution must incorporate insights about the client´s business.

We really don´t need to throw the Solution Selling baby away with the bathwater - especially since most people in sales are seeing it for the first time even as you read this today in 2014! 

Listening closely

The client knows what he wants or needs to be made aware of what he wants, but to do that one has to listen in a nuanced way to whatever he is ready to tell you.

We are happy when we are heard, but how much more important it is to listen.

The basics are often harder than anything in life!

The Bid Lead and the Bid Manager

A decent sized bid needs both of these roles. The Lead does the thinking and the Manager does the organizing and doing. If you merge the roles, you get too few ideas too poorly managed and the bid flounders with lack of direction and lack of effectiveness. When they are staffed by the right people, then it can seem symphonic and the bid will be successful. On a long large bid, these roles will take upper and lower hands at different stages. The bid lead must still be the boss over the bid manager since direction is more critical than managing.

Another interesting terminology I came across recently is to call the Bid Lead the Foreign Minister and to call the Bid Manager as the Interior Minister. Here we are talking about interior and exterior to the bid team, of course. So, the bid manager takes care of things within the bid team and the bid lead takes care of things outside the bid team. These external affairs handled by the Foreign Minister would be things like getting internal approvals, getting budgets, getting resources, communicating with the customer and so on. The bid manager's responsibilities on the other hand are to manage the bid team and produce the deliverables.  

Returning to Blogging and welcoming another year!

My goal is to post at least a 100 times in 2011. Having said that in public, I feel committed and under pressure. Which is how I get anything done in life, sadly. I am happy I am making this resolution (actually, plan) one day before the new years day. That way I can pretend it is not a new year resolution, which I have never managed to implement.

As for Bid Management, I see 2011 as a watershed year. I believe we will see the emergence of Bid Management 2.0, finally. This will mean

  • More virtual and less physical interactions with customers
  • Bids that are put together quick and dirty before they are iterated to perfection
  • Pricing models that are almost entirely by the drink in one way or another
  • Sourcing advisors fading away into insignificance
  • Business owners procuring directly from suppliers without middlemen like IT and procurement and 
  • A major leveling of the playing field among suppliers where the Goliaths and Davids are fighting for pieces of the same deal. 

Twelve months of working on bids ahead and then another year. What can be more interesting?

Average Employee IQ as a differentiator?

Bleum Inc, a Chinese outsourcer is hiring American college graduates with a minimum IQ of 125!

First I thought, are they serious?

Then I thought, why is IQ so important?

Then again, I felt, why not IQ?

Then my mind said, How about EQ?

What use is EQ without some IQ, replied the other half of my brain.

Whether or not IQ is critical to IT outsourcing provider success, I think it surely makes a catchy and colourful opening ( or closing) line in a proposal defense presentation to be able to say : 'All of our people are very very intelligent'

My experience is that a certain minimum IQ is called for without which you can't make much sense of anything. I also believe it is in short supply in many companies. But is IQ 125 better for career or company success than IQ 100? I dont think so.

In all the hype about EQ (which I agree is essential and in even shorter supply no doubt) I do feel that IQ has been buried rather unfairly for too long under the carpet.

Salute the Chinese for having dragged it out again.  

iPad as muse

Recently, at London Gatwick Airport I got to touch the iPad for the first time. Of course, it was sold out and the display piece was the only one left and of course it was not for sale. According to the shop assistant, that one shop alone sold 3000 of them in less than a week and I guess across UK, hundreds of thousands must have been sold. What is with these products from Apple, I wonder? Will it ever happen in my industry? Can we come up with a breakthrough product or service which people want to buy before it is even launched? We can only daydream.   

A potential buyer calls, ‘Hi there...we have some offshore IT services work for you...can we discuss?’...

‘Sorry sir...we are sold have to wait three months...’

Something tells me that conversation will never happen. Apple is something special.

Or is it?

There are others out there managing to sell the right products or services at the right price and right place. Like the really bare bones B & Bs near Gatwick airport which sell terrible but sufficient hotel rooms at 39 pounds including breakfast! Or those kiosks selling clear Ziplocs just before Airport security so you can show the whole world what your brand of toothpaste is! Or those selling use-your-UK-plug-anywhere adapters in the departure duty frees.

In any business, it should be possible to come up with products or services that customers would have a strong desire and incentive to buy. The hard part is deciding what that would be and then having the conviction and courage to build it. Of course, it is easier said than done and very few companies get it right if at all. Those that seem to get it right every single time seem to see stupendous Success.

What about Apple? They are plain unique! 

My Five Ways to be Persuasive

Guy Kawasaki has an interesting post on Five Ways to be Persuasive. While I roughly agree with those five, I wanted to talk about five of my own. Ways to be persuasive that is.

1) Dont Sell when there is no sale! - If the customer's problem wont be solved by your solution, there is no sale. Dont try to still sell your solution to him by trying to force fit your solution to the customer's need. I remember once making a presentation to a CIO about offshore outsourcing and how it would cut his budget by over 30%. The CIO stopped me and said, 'That is not my problem; I want a solution to increase my budget so I can be more relevant to my business!'

2) Don't just win the order! - Don't put all your energy into only selling a product or service. Put some thought, energy and the time of some of your smartest people on helping the client use your product. This might seem like an obvious thing, but if you go by the percentage of failed outsourcing projects for example and the reasons for their failure, it often turns out that what was sold and what was delivered (or consumed) were different. Look at this another way - Don't sell what you cant deliver! This is not to say you should not take any risks, but just that you need to think beyond getting the order.

3) Open up new problems! - If you are aware of mistakes in the client's approach to a project, for example if they have overlooked some important aspects, don't be afraid to open it up even if it may delay the project or it seems to result in a weakening of your position on the deal. For example, if you are selling an SAP implementation project and you notice serious gaps in the client's business blueprint output, ask them why they are bidding out the next phases of the project without getting the entry criteria right. You may not serve your immediate cause by such a professional approach, but believe me you will be seen as a trusted partner who is not afraid to open up uncomfortable topics to really get it right.

4) Ask till they drop! - Ask your client questions till you are truly clear about what they need and they are clear what you will deliver. While explaining your solution, ask more questions to make sure you have got the nuances of their requirements right. Ask even more questions to make sure they have understood well what is in your solution and what is not. Ask still more to make sure you have no ambiguity in any corner of your mind. Look around the room to see if all are showing signs of comprehension and look for any lingering doubts popping out. If you are not convinced, ask more questions until your throat is dry or the client tells you to get a move on...

Then, have a sip of water, and ask again...

5) Tell them your secrets! - Tell them how yesterday at dinner you were wondering how to fix that one nagging issue with your own solution. Tell them how you knew how the client would be wondering about it, how you were toying unsuccessfully with potential solutions even in your shower, and how you just maybe finally have got some ideas to solve the problem but how you are still not yet fully convinced of the solution. Tell them you want to bounce off your ideas with them to see if they would truly be effective. Be honest about it and tell them what you are worried about with your solution. You wont believe how much credibility you would earn this way.

Apple Thoughts

Apple is coming up with another iPhone. They are already the most valuable technology company in the world having overtaken Microsoft recently. The consensus conventional wisdom is that the future is clearly an Apple-rich one.  

Then how come most of the large Indian IT companies are doing nothing about it? Go to the websites of the top 10 Indian IT giants and you will be hard pressed to find anything about Apple. It is almost as if the most exciting tech company in the world did not exist for these Indian techies. You might argue the story is the same for the global biggies like IBM, Accenture and Cap Gemini but I do find evidence of them starting to think (if not worry) about Apple here, here and here.  I googled to find Rob Enderle has even speculated at length about a merger between Apple and IBM!!!! 

This apathy is probably because Apple has still not made any significant moves into the corporate world, having kept themselves more than busy in mesmerizing and dazzling individual consumers worldwide over the last several years. 

Most of the Indian IT companies are mainly servicing the corporate world, where it is true that there are very few Apple products. Until  now that is. However, this may be about to end as we can already see from the slow but sure entrance of the iPhone into most companies. Knowing the kind of person Steve Jobs is, he is surely not going to let the huge corporate market just lie around without doing anything about it sooner than later. 

My prediction is that the Indian IT company (or companies) which gets its Apple Strategy correct would be in super shape come 2020 and the rest are going to be caught napping. Is this surprising? Am I making too risky a bet? I don't really think so. It's just a hunch and I can just see it coming. 

Come on, I am only betting on Steve Jobs...what can be safer than that?  

Why Answer for a What Question

I have noticed several times how some of us answer a What question with a Why answer. 

The Customer IT Director asks ‘Will you be doing this integration testing from onsite or offshore?’

That is a simple question - either this or that. Simple, isn't it? 

Not, it would seem, for some people. 

Our Account Manager clears his throat and responds  ‘We decide where to do a specific activity based on various factors and in this case we have proposed to do the integration testing from offshore because it is easier to integrate the code from offshore…. If we don’t do it that way, and do it from onsite instead, it can cause challenges….However, if you would like us to do it from onsite, we are surely flexible enough to work with that; do you have a preference? ‘

Customer IT Director replies: No...just wanted to know, that is all’.

Here the Account Manager gets needlessly paranoid and continues once more with a glance at the customer buyer for moral support: You see, offshore is not the best location for System Testing since it is based on the URD which you guys know best being the users of the software. But, there are customers for whom we have done it from onsite since they insisted on it. If you insist, we are ready to do it for you at onsite!!!’

Here, the purchasing guy shoots in his goal into the empty net 'I assume this wont push the price up in any way’ 

forcing our account manager to blurt out 'No...but we have to come back to you on this...'

The Customer IT Director does not say anything for about twenty seconds,  but our Account Manager cannot take the pregnant silence any longer and feels obliged to fill the silence with some words.

He clears his throat and blurts out 

Yeah, it will cost more to do it onsite but considering that you want it that way and considering the spirit of our partnership, we are willing to pick up that additional cost’ 

Then, not realizing the extent of damage he has already done, he turns around and asks the customer IT Director once more ‘So, why are you suggesting we should do it onsite? Is it because you feel more comfortable that way?’

The customer IT director shakes his head in frustration and replies after a brief pause…’I am thinking…’

So, what is the IT director thinking right then? He is thinking about why he is wasting his time with this vendor. He is thinking about why this account manager cannot listen. Why he can’t seem to understand simple English. He is thinking about how bad the software engineers to come would be when this Account Manager (with a fancy title on his card and a flashy Versace tie to boot) cannot seem to understand a simple either-or question. He is even wondering why the account manager tried to put words into his mouth insinuating that he asked for the activity to be done onsite? 

He is indeed thinking ‘why is the purchasing guy who does not understand any of this technical stuff look at me as if I am the culprit’…

We know what he is definitely NOT thinking…’Oh, how much I want to give this project to this vendor…’

Multi Tasking in Bid Management

A couple of days ago, I read a fascinating blog post on the perils of multi-tasking. Though I have been aware of how bad multitasking can be (for example, Demarco and Lister wrote a decade ago in their fabulous book Peopleware about how interruptions like even a telephone call can break the 'flow' of a programmer hard at work on his program), I am guilty of multi tasking all the time. Knowing, as they say, is the easier half; doing is the much more difficult half. When I am in boring conference calls for example, my hand automatically opens the browser and takes me to my favourite web hangouts or to my pending emails. When I am driving and hear an incoming SMS, I am itching to open it by the time I reach the next red.

Bid management is no exception and here too this terrible habit is visible all the time. Most of the bid war rooms I have been in, I see people opening up their laptops and typing feverishly even while we are supposed to be brainstorming an important point. They don't contribute (though they do look like they are part of the discussion since they are sitting in the room where the discussion is going on), they make you revisit things having missed most of the crucial discussions, and they almost invariably miss the nuances of decisions and story lines. Without a doubt this seriously affects the quality of the proposal submitted or the impact of the defense presentation the next day!

I even had a boss who would be working non stop on his emails throughout our 20 minute 'one-on-one' bid review meeting. There seems to be no easy way of getting away from this.

The concept itself is really simple and nothing new. Thirty odd years ago, I was told by my third standard teacher in the Appa Iyer School in Kalpathy that the best way to ace any exam is by 'paying attention in class'. I am sure the word multi-tasking did not even exist then!

On the Road

Just returned from a trip to Paris, Stockholm and Copenhagen.

Across Europe, I see less pessimism among business people, compared with six months ago. Even projects involving offshore work is at least being talked about if not actually awarded. That may be because companies are tightening the belt everywhere in a sort of hangover from the recent crisis.

Denmark and Sweden are natural markets for english speaking offshore services companies. Both economies are having serious shortages of skilled labour and both are easy to do business in, given that most people speak excellent english. However, there is not all always a business case, since offshore productivity often neutralizes the cost advantage. Over in continental Europe, France remains beautiful and tough to do business in, especially for an Indian company. Period.

Thank Seattle for small mercies. Paris is surprisingly cheaper compared with Copenhagen especially if you go  by the price of an average Starbucks coffee (  €4 in the French capital versus an obscene €6 in Copenhagen!). Of course, Starbucks is ridiculously expensive anywhere and rightly called Four bucks!  

Negotiating a Contract

Often I wonder (or fear) before a meeting to discuss a contract if the other party would accept the changes proposed by my company. Often, these fears are unfounded and the meeting goes like a breeze. Here is what I have learnt about such meetings:

a) If you have critical disagreements in the contract, it is better to not send the redlined version before the meeting. It is better to bring these up orally, reach some sort of agreement before sending it out. This lightens the impact of these disagreements and gives you an opportunity to further refine your position before sending it out.

b) Everything is negotiable. Never hesitate to ask, except in the most absurd situations.

c) Find things to give, even if these are already given (if you get my drift).

d) Find other things to discuss before you get to the contract. Not the weather or the football game, but something else about the business or contract or whatever it is you are trying to do together. Don't jump straight into clause 11.7!

e) Never close the door on anything completely. Leave a little door open and say you cant agree but you are ready to go back to your company one more time.

f) MOST IMPORTANT: Get your own facts right. If you are a sales guy defending an estimate in a pricing negotiation, understand your estimates intimately before the meeting. Or else, you will be forced to concede room in the negotiation.

g) Dont panic or get desperate. With or without the deal, the world will surely go on. So, do your best but don't think the sky is going to fall if you dont succeed.

Blogging my way out of this stupor

Bid Management is a strange topic to write about when you are doing more selling and less bid management. This is a pathetic blog post. Wait a minute. This is what sometimes happens in the middle of a bid. You feel you are far behind, you have no chances of winning. You are frustrated by the piles of work still pending with just three days to go before the deadline. You are worried silly thinking about how to deliver what you have already committed to. You don't see much light at the end of the tunnel. Then, a weekend comes and goes. The sky clears up. The customer says you are down selected. You get called to a meeting in sunny california. The bid wakes up again. You feel relieved. For a while at least.

Are your Proposals iPad Ready

CIOs (or at least one as per this article) seem to think the new iPad has a role in Business. I believe, such devices will be all over the business place in a few years. Just like mobile phones and PDAs have simply swarmed the business world.

So, what does it mean for us proposal writers and bid managers. Our proposals have to read and look good and cool on these new devices.

Maybe we didnt worry too much about PDAs since none of us imagined any client would be a reading our proposals on a PDA. But on an iPad? You bet that's going to happen sooner or later.