Don’t Sell Me A Service – Sell Me The Clever

Companies have moved from selling products to selling services. I think it’s time for that model to evolve again.

I’ve worked closely for a very long time with a software company.

At first they sold a product; a set of floppy disks which came with a 1,300 page manual. It was a ragingly successful product, which has been distributed on 5.25″ disks, 3.5″ disks, CD, DVD and now probably available as a download. You installed the product on your own PC, and licensed it. With a “product” comes the burden documentation, and lots of testing on all sorts of different hardware/operating system combinations, and lots of telephone support.

About 5 years ago they developed some functionality which was years ahead of its time. Because it looked rather complicated to most people, and demanded some knowledge of SQL and IIS, they decided to make it available as a service; a service that radio stations could make look like their own by putting their own branding and logos on it. Apparently the only clue that it wasn’t being run directly by the radio station was that it was served from a different IP address.

Quite a lot of companies sell services nowadays. On the premise of rapid deployment, and hassle free operation, they offer an apparently beguiling solution to the problem of keeping up with the market. You can buy content management services, community and networking services, text message services, podcasting services. The common thread is that the functionality is bundled up to the point where you just add colour and logo and link to it.

The difficulty with these bundled service is that you end up with little parcels of functionality all over your site, and it’s very hard to mesh it all together in a way that the user might want to use it. It becomes harder to retain consistency of navigation and behaviour, and if you do want to do a change, it means negotiating with a range of different companies to implement it. And of course you end up with segegrated pots of data and content, which makes it virtually impossible to neatly flow learned behaviours/preferences around your site.

I really liked the functionality that this software company offered us, but really hated the service. It just wasn’t right for what we wanted, and it would have been a major job (and cost) to amend it. So I offered to licence just the core code so that we could integrate the functionality deep into our own systems and sites – and to their enormous credit, they agreed. In fact, it helps them too. They don’t need to create a “product”, and they now don’t need to guess our end-user needs when developing the “service”. And we avoid paying for (and almost certainly unpicking) layers we don’t want or need.

The secret of innovating fast is to make small, incremental, steps quickly. Companies with “clever” are more likely to get a sale by allowing their work to be an incremental building block in someone else’s plan rather than trying to provide the whole shooting match. I think I’ll go mental if another company comes to me with some nice functionality that has yet another “content management system” with it. The sum total of content management systems in any organisation should be one. No higher, no lower. One.

I’d be overjoyed if more companies offered to sell me their “clever”.

(P.S. If you’ve got something clever, do let me know. I might be able to find it a loving home nestled in an existing system).

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