What Your Customers Want Vs. What They Need
Seagull Scientific founder Jeremy Seigel recounts experiences that may help bar code VARs increase sales.
When I finished designing my first bar code reader back in 1985, there was just one more thing to do — get people to buy it. Unfortunately, I was not as comfortable selling as I was designing circuits. I was confident in my product, but I felt awkward bragging about it. And I had never even heard of 'closing' a sale. Instead, I simply talked about my product's features and how bar coding worked. It wasn't classic sales technique, but I did well enough to get Seagull off the ground. Then I hired a 'real' salesperson, and selling our products came much more naturally to him. Still, it hadn't been lost on me that with no sales training and very little sales skill, I made sales just by educating my customers. I strongly emphasized this point to my new salesperson.
As time passed, we sold more than 10,000 bar code readers before I ran into my first serious trouble in the early 1990s. The manufacturers of CCD (charge coupled device) and laser scanners started including bar code decoding capability for free inside their scanners. Still, I competed successfully enough that 2-D bar codes became a hot topic. Unlike lasers and CCDs, wand-based systems such as ours simply could not read 2-D codes. So, when customers asked about them, I took the position that 2-D bar codes were being overhyped. After all, you could track 10 billion unique parts with a 10-digit bar code. "How often do you really need to store that much extra information in a bar code? Isn't that what databases are for?" I asked.
I was half right. It's true that 2-D bar codes were overkill for many users at the time. But, without our own 2-D scanners, our message had no credibility. Moreover, a lot of industry people were pushing 2-D whether their customers needed it or not. After all, it presented new opportunities to sell corporations with perfectly functioning bar code systems.
As the 1990s progressed, Seagull transitioned into a label software company. As we developed our 2-D bar code printing capabilities, it intrigued me that some hardware manufacturers at first tried to lock their customers into proprietary 2-D bar codes only their scanners and label printers supported. Others put their 2-D bar codes into the public domain, and most of those are the ones that became the standards today. Another lesson learned — give your customers options. Even if you lose some sales in the short run, they will better appreciate you in the long run.
It is similarly interesting to think back to how RFID (radio frequency identification) developed earlier in this decade. The marketing buzz became deafening while vastly superior Gen 2 RFID label printers and scanners were still on the horizon. So, while we waited, we added support for Gen 1 RFID-capable printers to our label software. Industry insiders knew where the market was heading, and yet a lot of eager early adopters purchased hardware that never worked reliably and quickly became obsolete. I have often wondered how many of those early adopters went right back out and bought a second round of RFID hardware from the very same vendors that had sold them their expensive Gen 1 equipment.
Almost as long as there has been label software, we have watched one particularly long-standing version of 'the customer vs. the salesperson.' The original method of printing labels was to hard code (embed) printer code right into an ERP (enterprise resource planning) software application. This method is still used by some IT consultants today, because it is what they know and because you need to call them back just to modify your labels. (Printer manufacturers don't mind, as it locks you into their brand of printer. Sound familiar?) In contrast, by controlling a separate label printing program from within the ERP application, users can modify label designs themselves and support multiple printer brands across their enterprises. Based on our other history lessons, we believe that the most successful vendors will continue to be those that truly educate their customers about options such as this, rather than trying to lock them into proprietary platforms. The same can be said for VARs. After all, customers usually find out the truth eventually.