Monday, May 25, 2009

Go After the Inarticulate Need

Clients may be spending less, but they are still looking for solutions. The question is: Are you offering the solutions they're looking for? There may be high-margin, sole-source work right under your nose. But your clients aren't asking you to provide these services. In fact, they might not even know what to ask for. It's the golden opportunity of the inarticulate need.

One of the classic examples was the introduction of the minivan. Hal Sperlich, who championed the idea, initially approached his employer Ford about it. They declined, in part because they lacked market data showing that people were looking for such a vehicle. Sperlich ended up at Chrysler, which was willing to take the chance--and the minivan was largely credited with reviving that troubled company. Now Chrysler is back in distress, lacking that untapped opportunity that saved them in the 1980s.

Undoubtedly your clients have needs that they don't fully understand. To a large degree, problems are defined by the available solutions. Several years ago, everyone recognized the need for better treatment technologies. Then some began to focus on revising upstream processes and inputs to reduce the need for treatment. Later, the emphasis shifted to reevaluating treatment standards in light of actual risk, particularly with regard to hazardous wastes.

With each development in thinking, the inarticulate need surfaced and the market responded with a new set of services. As the client came to better understand the need, and as the number of solution providers increased, the value of those services generally declined. But inevitably someone would uncover another unrecognized need, and the industry would go through another cycle of invigoration as new services emerged in response.

The current recession has shaken the business world and created new challenges that may not be fully understood, or even acknowledged yet. This opens new possibilities for your firm, if you're willing to venture outside the box. Uncovering your clients' inarticulate needs isn't easy, but it can be immensely rewarding. Some suggestions:

Don't be a hammer in search of a nail. The typical sales approach focuses on finding opportunities for existing services. Thus it biases your investigation of client needs. If you really want to understand the client's issues, especially inarticulate ones, you must probe for problems outside the realm of your normal services.

Ask feeling questions. The inarticulate need is often first manifested in emotions. The client may feel frustrated, perplexed, discouraged, overwhelmed, resigned--and not have yet connected those feelings to the root cause. Unearthing that connection doesn't necessarily require expertise in psychology, just a willingness to ask good questions and listen carefully. So once you've explored the more objective issues with the client, carefully pose questions about how he or she feels about the situation. The emotional context can help you better define what the real issues are. Plus those feelings can create a greater sense of urgency to do something about the problem.

Brainstorm with the client. The beauty of brainstorming is the freedom to generate ideas uncritically. Often the inarticulate need is hidden by "the way we've always done things." Your role is to help the client escape limited thinking and explore new perspectives. Again, you need to avoid limiting the alternatives considered to only those matching your expertise. If you need additional expertise to fully address the client's needs, pull it from elsewhere in your firm or partner with another firm.

Examine the less obvious impacts of change. We are all interested in how current economic, political, and technological changes affect our business. A better question is how these changes impact our clients. Help your client anticipate the new needs and opportunities that will result from the new realities we face. Better still, look for the hidden impacts, those that your competitors are missing. This involves looking beyond technical issues and examining the associated consequences of those issues. It is those consequences that often present the greatest challenges to our clients, and addressing them may not require venturing as far from your core competencies as you might imagine.

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