With The Right People: Serendipity Marketing

Client consultation is the key in complex markets. All businesses develop marketing plans that they hope will power them into a marketplace and establish themselves as the go-to provider of products or services. But when your customers are complex, the usual sales tactics aren’t enough. Instead, you need to rely on a kind of serendipity marketing – working to be with the right people in the right place at the right time. This is also known as consultative selling, or consulting with the customer to identify a problem you can help address. It requires a long vision that will be increasingly required as business becomes more complex. The Problem When NGRAIN, a Vancouver provider of software that uses 3-D animation to create training manuals and material, began in 2000, its future was really undetermined. Built on 3-D software developed by a video-game fan, the company figured its best market probably involved training. But the training world is multivaried and extremely crowded, so NGRAIN had to determine where its best opportunities lay. CEO Paul Lindahl, an IBM alumnus and technology industry veteran, knew that people don’t buy technology; they buy solutions to their problems. So NGRAIN had to identify particular problems that it could solve. And so began a long, multi-year program of probing, consulting, schmoozing and, eventually, the Holy Grail: a sale. The Solution Lindahl and his colleagues spent years consulting with several industries in order to find those problems. Recognizing that the most useful application of its technology was in equipment-maintenance training, they went to several large manufacturers and offered to help them. But the manufacturers weren’t really interested. Eventually, one manufacturer suggested NGRAIN go to the customers – in most cases government organizations – rather than to equipment manufacturers. That advice led to many meetings with government departments, most of whom were wary of the newcomer. But eventually a Canadian military officer suggested that NGRAIN’s software might help quickly transfer knowledge to the troops in the field. The military, the officer said, had to train people to maintain equipment fast, and was having trouble doing it. NGRAIN had found its pain point. Despite its conservative image, the Canadian military is known as a vigorous early adopter of technology. Because it’s relatively small in global terms, it must make do with less, and so it often turns to technology to solve its problems. But it’s still a government operation, which can be something of a closed circle, so NGRAIN’s first contract with the Canadian military was a meagre $25,000 agreement to create a CD-based 3-D training program on assembling a temporary bridge. Pretty small stuff, but the military liked the results, and a version of the six degrees of separation theory took over: the contracting officer told a few people, who told a few people, and soon a contract came in that was 10 times the size of the initial agreement. Then followed several partnerships with manufacturers and several more contracts for training in often-complex, always-urgent equipment. For example, one of NGRAIN’s coups was helping the U.S. military quickly train in armoured vehicle maintenance in Iraq: apparently wheels were falling off, and they had to train maintenance personnel on correct procedure. After years of wandering in the wilderness, armed with determination, curiosity and a desire to learn, Lindahl and his colleagues realized what their company does best. And, apparently, so did many large and complex organizations. With champions within organizations, there were soon more sales requests coming in than cold calls going out. Now NGRAIN is receiving multimillion-dollar contracts. Customers include the U.S. military, Canada government services, Lockheed Martin’s Joint Strike Fighter Aircraft program in the U.S. and many others. Lessons • Be patient and curious. Consultative selling takes a long time but has big payoffs for those who are willing to listen, help find solutions and tailor products or services to needs. • Get your toe in the tent. Complex organizations don’t just deal with any sales rep who comes along. Start with small jobs to show your stuff and earn trust. • Build a board. It helps to have industry veterans guide you. NGRAIN has a couple of military generals on its board, and they provide invaluable advice on the military mind.