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These best practices ensure the right response to the types of types of demand I cover in my last post.  They support a range of self-service and assisted-service capabilities that enable your ‘customers’ to find, evaluate and even select, quote, order, and follow your products across their entire life cycle.  Here are four key types of enablement that will prove invaluable in making this shift:

  1. Guided Selling – the process of ‘finding the right fit’ for any customer need always requires that you present your best knowledge of product applicability as a series of ‘context-aware’ trade-offs vs. your own offering AND your competitors’.  That is, by offering an intelligent, contextual dialogue to your customers and sales channels you can put the knowledge of your best product experts at their fingertips during that early stage of evaluating solutions to their needs.  Failure to offer this ‘up-front’ guidance leaves the door open to many unsatisfactory outcomes – including sub-optimal selections, or more competitive offerings from other sources.  A better model is to offer a self-service starting point that is able to engage “the expert” at any point in the process when the customer is no longer able to fully self-service.  During this ‘dialogue’ you are also best able to influence ‘cross-selling and ‘up-selling’; but further, you are able to gather key information and data about this customer or prospect’s needs and patterns.  We are NOT talking about ‘electronic catalogs’ of static information.  This is about intelligent and easy-to-use technologies for classes of users that range from ‘neophyte/casual’ to technically savvy users, and even to support ‘experts’ in this interactive process of refinement of the needed solutions.  It is ALWAYS tied to collaboration technologies (e.g. Call an Expert, Chat, etc.).  Don’t leave customers stranded; but don’t expect them to wait until you call on them either.
  2. Sales Configuration – This is a poorly understood part of presenting solutions in the Age of the Customer.  In best-practices enablement, this is a full-range of COMMERCIAL AND TECHNICAL trade-offs that must be made during the sales cycle.   The software industry has glommed onto a term called CPQ to describe the process of defining the dynamic customer offering for any given sale that requires any level of differentiation.  This is a very shallow interpretation that has misled many manufacturers to a narrow set of capabilities that are disconnected from their core master data and commercial/technical best practices.  What we are talking about is an intelligent self-service dialogue about the key commercial and technical trade-offs driven by the customers’ needs for specific features, options, quality, price, lead-time, performance, and industry standards.  The technologies leveraged MUST be in context of sales, manufacturing and service capabilities and limitations.  They must present dynamic, instant feedback about price, lead-time and other key commercial factors.  They must also enable collaboration if/as needed when the customer needs support during the self-service process.  Again, don’t leave customers stranded – engage whenever self-service is not enough.  You will find that you are deeply engaged early and often. 
  3. Order ConfigurationTranslating the Sales cycle to the fulfillment cycle must be seamless and efficient, even for products that are dynamically defined through sales configuration.  You will need to ensure consistency and connectivity between your Sales platform (ideally an integrated and seamless CRM and Portal experience) and your fulfillment (ERP) systems.  Through Master Data Synchronization you can harmonize this process to ensure that the ORDER captures all of the relevant QUOTE information and adds the remaining elements necessary for clean order launch into fulfillment.  This also includes the enablement of the AS-BUILT Product database for use in the services life cycle (the key to owning the parts and service life of the equipment). 
  4. Design Configuration – This final type of knowledge-enabled differentiation is tied directly to your Engineering Systems environment.  It enables the best-practices to fully define and document, display and present the ‘unique’ aspects of any given customer demand during the quote or order process.  These capabilities simplify and automate the processes of making design adaptations, generating any new/unique components/parts, and most importantly creating the visual representations and product specifications needed by customers to know exactly how these ‘differentiated’ solutions will conform in their environment.  The beauty of this design automation is that is not all or nothing.  Use the predefined data and logic for the pre-configured portions of the configuration and then add the specialized elements for the characteristics that cannot be anticipated in advance (the specializations required for this need).  This embodies the full pre-engineering of high runners while leaving the rest to be partially engineered upon first demand if ever (and then become part of the pre-engineered offer). 

Together, these four types of Knowledge-Based Technologies are keys to successful differentiation .  They are all accessible in today’s world, and many companies have already mastered at least parts of each capability.  The trick is to harmonize all of them in a seamless and easy to use model.  Standalone capabilities are better than none – but they leave room for you to be beaten by a competitor who has connected them for a truly seamless self-service capability that is bolstered by an ability to engage the experts anywhere along the way.

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