Selling

Good Article on Why AI Projects Fail

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Photo by Alex Knight on Pexels.com

Today I ran across this article that was very good as it focused on lessons learned, which potentially helps everyone interested in these topics. It contained a good mix of problems at a non-technical level.

Below is the link to the article, as well as commentary on the Top 3 items listed from my perspective.

https://www.cio.com/article/3429177/6-reasons-why-ai-projects-fail.html

Item #1: 

The article starts by discussing how the “problem” being evaluated was misstated using technical terms. It led me to believe that at least some of these efforts are conducted “in a vacuum.” That was a surprise given the cost and strategic importance of getting these early-adopter AI projects right.

In Sales and Marketing you start the question, “What problem are we trying to solve?” and evolve that to, “How would customers or prospects describe this problem in their own words?” Without that understanding, you can neither initially vet the solution nor quickly qualify the need for your solution when speaking with those customers or prospects. That leaves a lot of room for error when transitioning from strategy to execution.

Increased collaboration with Business would likely have helped. This was touched on at the end of the article under “Cultural challenges,” but the importance seemed to be downplayed. Lessons learned are valuable – especially when you are able to learn from the mistakes of others. To me, this should have been called out early as a major lesson learned.

Item #2: 

This second area had to do with the perspective of the data, whether that was the angle of the subject in photographs (overhead from a drone vs horizontal from the shoreline) or the type of customer data evaluated (such as from a single source) used to train the ML algorithm.

That was interesting because it appears that assumptions may have played a part in overlooking other aspects of the problem, or that the teams may have been overly confident about obtaining the correct results using the data available. In the examples cited those teams did figure those problems out and took corrective action. A follow-on article describing the process used to make their root cause determination in each case would be very interesting.

As an aside, from my perspective, this is why Explainable AI is so important. There are times that you just don’t know what you don’t know (the unknown unknowns). Being able to understand why and on what the AI is basing its decisions should help with providing better quality curated data up-front, as well as being able to identify potential drifts in the wrong direction while it is still early enough to make corrections without impacting deadlines or deliverables.

Item #3: 

This didn’t surprise me but should be a cause for concern as advances are made at faster rates and potentially less validation is made as organizations race to be first to market with some AI-based competitive advantage. The last paragraph under ‘Training data bias’ stated that based on a PWC survey, “only 25 percent of respondents said they would prioritize the ethical implications of an AI solution before implementing it.

Bonus Item:

The discussion about the value of unstructured data was very interesting, especially when you consider:

  1. The potential for NLU (natural language understanding) products in conjunction with ML and AI.
  2. The importance of semantic data analysis relative to any ML effort.
  3. The incredible value that products like MarkLogic’s database or Franz’s AllegroGraph provide over standard Analytics Database products.
    • I personally believe that the biggest exception to assertion this will be from GPU databases (like OmniSci) that easily handle streaming data, can accomplish extreme computational feats well beyond those of traditional CPU based products, and have geospatial capabilities that provide an additional dimension of insight to the problem being solved.

 

Update: This is a link to a related article that discusses trends in areas of implementation, important considerations, and the potential ROI of AI projects: https://www.fastcompany.com/90387050/reduce-the-hype-and-find-a-plan-how-to-adopt-an-ai-strategy

This is definitely an exciting space that will experience significant growth over the next 3-5 years. The more information, experiences, and lessons learned shared the better it will be for everyone.

It’s not Rocket Science – What you Measure Defines how People Behave

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A while back I wrote a post titled, To Measure is to Know.  That is only part of the story, so please read on.

The other side of the coin is that what you measure defines how people behave. This is an often forgotten aspect of Business Intelligence, Compensation Plans, Performance reviews, and other key areas in business. While many people view this topic as “common sense,” based on the numerous incentive plans that you run across as a consultant it seems that is not the case. Picture showing an astronaut floating in space above Earth

Is it a bad thing to have people respond by focusing on specific aspects of their job that they are being measured on? That is a tough question. This simple answer is, “sometimes.” This is ultimately the desired outcome of implementing specific key performance indicators (KPIs), but it doesn’t always work. So, let’s dig into this a bit deeper.

One prime example is something seemingly easy yet often anything but – Compensation Plans. When properly implemented these plans drive organic business growth through increased sales and revenue (both likely items being measured), as well as drive steady cash flow by constantly closing within certain periods (usually months or quarters). What could be better than that?

Salespeople focus on the areas where they have the greatest opportunity to make money. Presumably they are selling the products or services that you want them to based on their comp plans. Additionally, certain MBO (management by objective) goals are presumably focused on positive outcomes that are important to the business, such as bringing-on new reference accounts. Those are forward looking goals that increase future (as opposed to immediate) revenue. In a perfect world, with perfect comp plans, all of these business goals are codified and supported by motivational financial incentives.

Some of the most successful salespeople are the ones that primarily care only about themselves. They are in the game for one reason – to make money. Give them a plan that is well constructed and allows them to win and they will do so in a predictable manner. Paying large commission checks should be a goal for every business, because when they are doing that their own business is prospering.

But, give a salesperson a plan that is poorly constructed and they will likely find ways to personally win in ways that are inconsistent with company growth goals (e.g., paying commission based on deal size, but not factoring in the overall impact of excessive discounts). Even worse, give them a plan that doesn’t provide a chance to win and the results will be uncertain at best.

Just as most tasks tend to expand to use all time available, salespeople tend to book most of their deals at the end of whatever period is being used. With quarterly cycles most of the business tends to book in the final week or two of the quarter – something that is not ideal from a cash flow perspective. Using shorter monthly periods may increase business overhead, but the potential to significantly increase business from salespeople working harder for that immediate benefit will likely be a very worthwhile tradeoff.

What about motiving Services teams? What I did with my company was to provide quarterly bonuses based on overall company profitability and each individual’s contribution to our success that quarter. Most of our projects used task oriented billing where we billed 50% up-front and 50% at the time of the final deliverables. You needed to both start and complete a task within a quarter to maximize your personal financial contribution, so there was plenty of incentive to deliver and quickly move to the next task. As long as quality remains high this is a good thing.

We also factored-in salary costs (i.e., if you make more than you should be bringing-in more value to the company), the cost of re-work, and non-financial items that were beneficial to the company. For example, writing a white paper, giving a presentation, helping others, or even providing formal documentation on lessons learned added business value and would be rewarded.  Everyone had the right motivation, performed work and delivered quality work products as needed, and made good money doing so.

This approach worked very well for me, and was continually validated over the course of several years. It also fostered innovation, because the team was always looking for ways to increase their value and earn more money. Many tools, processes and procedures came out of what would otherwise be routine engagements.

Mistakes with comp plans can be costly – due to excessive payouts and/or because they are not generating the expected results. Back testing is one form of validation as you build a plan. Short-term incentive programs are another. Remember, where there is not risk there is little reward, so accept the fact that some risk must be taken to find the point where the optimal behavior is fostered.

It can be challenging and time consuming to identify the right things to measure, the right number of things (measuring too many or too few will likely fall short of goals), and provide the incentives that will motivate people to do what you want or need. But it is definitely worthwhile work if you want your business to grow and be healthy.

This type of work isn’t rocket science, and therefore is well within everyone’s reach.

The Importance of Proper Pricing

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Pricing is one of those things that can make or break a company. Doing it right takes an understanding of your business (cost structure and growth / profitability goals), the market, your competition, and more. Doing it wrong can mean the death of your business (fast or slow), not being able to attract and retain the best people, and not having the opportunity to work to your full potential. These problems apply to companies of all sizes – although large organizations can absorb bad pricing decisions or sustain an unprofitable business much easier than small ones. picture showing several bundles of money

When I started my consulting company in 1999 the plan was to win business by pricing our services 10%-15% lower than the competition. It was a bad plan and it didn’t work. Unfortunately, this approach is something you see all too often in businesses today. In our case we didn’t start to grow until we increased our prices (about 10% more than the competition) and focused on our expertise and value. We were (correctly) perceived as being a premium alternative, and that positioning helped us grow.

Several years ago I had a management consulting engagement with a small software company. The business owner told me that they were, “an overnight success that was 10 years in the making.” His concern was that they might not be able to capitalize on recent success so he was looking for an outside opinion.

I analyzed his business, product, customers, and competition. His largest competitor is the industry leader in this space, and products from both companies were evenly matched from a feature perspective. My client’s product even had a few key features that better for Healthcare and Union environments. So, why weren’t they growing faster?

What I found is that competition was priced 400% higher for the base product. When I asked the owner, he told me their goal was to be priced 75% – 80% less than the competition. He could not explain why he did this, other than to state that his customers would be unwilling to pay any more than that. In many cases he lost head-to-head competition against that competitor, but almost never on features. Areas of concern were generally on the size and profitability of the company, and the risk created by each.

I shared the graph (below) with this person, explaining how proper pricing would increase their profitability and annual revenue, and how both of those items would help provide customers and prospects with confidence. Moreover, this would allow the company to grow, eliminate single points of failure in key areas (Engineering and Customer Support), add features, and even spend money on marketing.

Graph showing revenue relative to the life cycle stages of a successful business venture
Source: Entrepreneurial Finance by Leach and Melicher (3rd Ed.)

In another example I worked with the Product Manager of a larger software company who was responsible for producing quarterly product package distributions. This work was outsourced and each build cost approximately $50K. I asked a simple question, “What is the break-even point for each distribution?” That person replied, “There really isn’t a good way to tell.”

Graph showing cost volume profit analysis
Sample cost-volume-profit (CVP) analysis

By the end of the day I provided a Cost-Volume-Profit (CVP) analysis spreadsheet that showed the break-even point. Even more important, it showed the contribution margin and demonstrated there was very little operating leverage provided these products (i.e., they weren’t very profitable even if you sold a lot of them). The recommendations made were to increase prices (which could negatively impact sales) and/or make fewer releases per year, or find a more cost-effective way of releasing products. Without this analysis “business as usual” would have likely continued for several years.

Companies are in business to make money – pure and simple. Everything you do as a business owner or leader needs to be focused on growth. Growth is the result of a combination of factors, such as uniqueness of product or services provided, quality, reputation, efficiency and repeatability. Many of these are the same factors that drive profitability. Pricing can help drive profitability, so as you can see pricing can significantly impact growth.

Some customers and prospects will do everything possible to whittle your profit margins down to nothing. They are focused on their own short-term gain, and not on their long-term risk. Companies that are not profitable generally lack longevity. Those same companies expect to make a profit on their business, so it is unreasonable to expect anything different from suppliers. My feeling is that, “Not all business is good business” so it is better to walk away from bad business and focus on the business that helps your company grow.

One of the best books on pricing that I’ve ever found is, “The Strategy and Tactics of Pricing: A Guide to Profitable Decision Making” by Thomas T. Nagle and Reed K. Holden. This is an extremely comprehensive and practical book that I recommend to anyone responsible for pricing or who has P&L responsibility within an organization. This addresses the many complexities of pricing and is truly invaluable.

In a future post I will discuss the metrics that I use to understand efficiency and profitability. Metrics can be your best friend when it comes to finding ways to optimize pricing and maximizing profitability. This can help you create a systematic approach to business that increases efficiency, consistency, and quality.

At my company we developed a system where we know how long common tasks would take to complete, and had efficiency factors for each consultant. This allowed us to create estimates based on the type of work and the people most likely to work on the task, and fix bid the work. Our bids were competitive, and even when we were the highest priced bid we often won because we would be the only (or one of the few) companies to guarantee prices and results. Our level of effort estimates were +/- 4%, and that helped us maintain a 40%+ minimum gross margin for every project. This approach helped our business double in revenue without doubling in size.

There are many causes of poor pricing, which include: Lack of understanding of cost structure; Lack of understanding of the level of effort; and lack of concern for profitability (e.g., salespeople who are paid on the size of the deal, and not on margins or profitability). But, with a little understanding and effort you can make small adjustments to your pricing approach and models that can have a huge impact to the bottom line of your business.

Doing it like Mike

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My son is playing basketball this year (previously he played football and soccer), and recently we went shopping for new shoes. Each store had pictures of Michael Jordan. I used to love watching MJ play with the Chicago Bulls. He was the epitome of skill and professionalism. To this day he inspires me.

"The Chart" - from Chris Lytle's MAX Sales Training program
“The Chart” – from Chris Lytle’s MAX Sales Training program

Some people are just naturally talented, but even they need to work hard to maximize their potential. Hard work is an important aspect of being the best of anything, but it takes more than that. It takes doing things in a manner that allows you to continuously improve, as well as a positive mindset and commitment to success. Once people reach that level of high performance their job begin to look easy, and they may even appear to be “naturals” – just like Mike.

Most of my career changes have been unplanned. Opportunities presented themselves, the job seemed interesting, and before I knew it I was fully immersed in something related but different.  Many of these things have not come naturally to me. Each time I have focused on understanding the requirements for doing the job well, then look for examples of exceptional performance, and then create a systematic approach that allowed me to measure performance and identify areas of improvement.

Sales has been a large part of my consulting management jobs since the mid-1990’s, but it wasn’t until I owned my own company that this became a true priority.  I ran across a good book, The Accidental Salesperson by Chris Lytle.  Back then Chris Lytle had “MAX Training,” and a large part of their focus was increasing your “level” with regard to Prospect and Client relationships. The training was good, and was complementary to systems like Miller Heiman. What each of these systems do is help you prepare, plan, and then execute to the best of your ability. And like basketball, it takes practice to master (although you can get immediate value, so don’t wait until you have finished to begin trying).

Regardless of the system used, what is important no matter what you are trying to be the best at is to look at both positive and negative examples to see what you can learn from them.  There are lessons to be learned everywhere! Understanding what makes it good or bad helps you improve as part of a continual process. Incorporating new tools and techniques into what has already been proven to work for you can improve your game. Going back to the sports analogy, this could be part of what made Michael Jordon so good. He would see something interesting, improve it, and then make it his own.

For example, I get a lot of really horrible sales calls and email. The people have obviously not done any preparation, do not know anything about me or the company I work for, and often remind me of why I stopped listening to them by referring to the number of times they have tried contacting me. On the other hand, there are some really talented sales professionals who have done their homework, understand their products and the competition, and have an idea about why what they are selling should matter to me.  I speak with them and occasionally buy from them. And in either case I provide my team with real life examples of good and bad sales techniques.

So, think of the best example of whatever it is you do, and see what you can do to become more like them. This isn’t about imitation, but rather about uncovering the secrets of their success and learning from them. And, have some fun doing it!

Mind of a Champion – Michael Jordan training for success

Acting like an Owner – Does it matter?

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One of the biggest changes to my professional perspective on business came during the seven years that I was running my own consulting business. Prior to that I had worked as an employee for midsize to large companies for ten years, and as one of the first hires at a start-up technology company. I felt that the combination of doing hands-on work, managing, selling, and helping establish a start-up (where I did not have an equity stake) provided everything needed to start my own business.

Well, guess what? I was only partially correct. I was prepared for the activities of running the business, but really was not prepared for the responsibility of running a business. While this seems like it should be obvious, what I’ve seen many times since then is that small business owners usually focus the majority of their efforts on growth / upside. That type of optimism is important for entrepreneurs – without it they would not bother putting so much at risk. I will write more posts about my business ownership experiences later.

People tend to adopt a different perspective on the decision making process once they realize that every action and decision can impact the money moving into and out of their own wallet. Even in a large business you can typically spot the people who have taken these risks and run their own business. It’s more than just striking out on your own as a contractor or sole proprietor. I’m talking about the people who have had employees, invested in capital equipment, and went all-in. These are the people thinking about the big picture.

What do these people do differently than people who have not had this type of experience?

One of the biggest things is they view business in terms of “good business” and “bad business.” Not all business is good business, and not all customers are good customers. There needs to be a fair commercial exchange where both sides receive value, mutual respect, and open communication. You know this is working when your customers treat you like a true partner (a real trusted advisor) instead of a vendor.  A business is in business to make money, so if the work is not profitable it is very likely that you should not be doing it. And, if you are not delivering value to an organization it is very likely that you would be better off spending your time elsewhere – building your reputation and reference base.

When you are not thinking or acting like an owner it is all about the sale and your commission. Selling products and services that people don’t need, charging too little or too much, and making promises that you know will not be met are typical signs of a person who is not thinking like an owner. Their focus is on the short-term, and they often feel that someone else will fix this once it becomes their problem.

How you view and treat employees is another big difference. Unfortunately, even business owners do not always get this. My feeling is that employees are either viewed as Assets (to be managed for growth and long-term value) or Commodities (to be used-up and replaced as needed – usually viewed as fungible and treated as if they are easily replaceable). Your business is usually only as good as your employees, so treating them well and with respect creates loyalty and results in higher customer satisfaction. Successful business owners usually look for the best person out there, and not just the most affordable person who is “good enough” to do the job. The flipside is that you need to weed out the people who are not a good fit quickly. Making good decisions quickly and decisively is often a hallmark of a successful business owner.

Successful business owners are generally more innovative. They understand the need to find a niche where they can win and provide good and/or services that are different and often better than what larger vendors offer. Sometimes this means specialization and customization, and sometimes this means more attention and better support. Regardless of what is different, these people are observant of the small details, understand their target market, and are good at defining a message that articulates that difference. These are the people that seem to be able to see around corners and anticipate both problems and opportunities. They do this out of necessity.

Former business owners are usually more conscientious about money, taking a “my money” perspective on sales and expenses. Every dollar in the business provides safety and opportunity for growth. These usually are not the people who routinely spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on business meals, or who take unnecessary or questionable trips to nice places. Money saved on things like travel or training expenses can be invested in new products, features, or marketing for an organization.

While these are commonly traits found in successful business owners, it is possible to develop them even if you have never owned a business. Do you understand the big picture vision and mission of the company that you work at? Who is your competition and how are they different? How is their messaging different? When selling, are you focused on delivering value, developing a positive reputation within that organization, and profiting on the long-term relationship? When delivering services, is your focus on delivering what has been contracted – and doing so on time and within budget? Are your projects used as examples of how things should be done within other organizations?  Are you spending money on the right things – not wasteful or extravagant?

These are all things that employees at all levels can do. They will make a difference and will help you stand out. That opens the door to career growth and change. And, it may get you thinking about starting that business you have always dreamed of. Awareness and understanding are the first steps to change and improvement.

 

What’s the prize if I win?

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In consulting and in business there is a tendency to believe that if you show someone how to find that proverbial “pot of gold at the end of the rainbow” that they will be motivated to do so.  Seasoned professionals will tend to ask, “What problem are you trying to solve?” to understand if there is a real opportunity or not. If you are unable to quickly, clearly and concisely articulate both the problem and why this helps solve that problem it is often game over then and there (N.B.  It pays to be prepared). But, having the right answer is not a guarantee of moving forward.

Unfortunately, sometimes a mere pot of gold just isn’t enough to motivate. Sometimes it takes something different, and usually something personal. It’s more, “What’s in this for me?” No, I am not talking about bribes, kickbacks or anything illegal or unethical. This is about finding out what is really important to the decision maker and helping demonstrate that this will bring them closer to achieving their personal goals.

Case in point. Several years ago I was trying to sell a packaged Business Intelligence (BI) system developed on our database platform to customers most likely to have a need. Qualification performed – check. Interested – check. Proof of value – check. Close the deal – not so fast…

This application was a set of dashboards with 150-200 predefined KPIs (key performance indicators). The premise was that you could quickly tailor and deploy the new BI system with little risk (finding and validating the data needed was available to support the KPI was the biggest risk, but one that could be identified up-front) and about half the cost of what a similar typical implementation would cost. Who wouldn’t want one?

I spent several days onsite with our client, identified areas of concern and opportunity, and used their own data to quantify the potential benefit. Before the end of the week I was able to show the potential to get an 8x ROI in the first year. Remember, this was estimated using their data – not figures that I just created. Being somewhat conservative I suggested that even half that amount would be a big success.  Look – we found the pot of gold!

Despite this the deal never closed. This company had a lot of money, and this CIO had a huge budget. Saving $500K+ would be nice but was not essential. What I learned later was that this person was pushing forward an initiative of his own that was highly visible. This new system had the potential to become a distraction and he did not need that. Had I been able to make this determination sooner I could have easily repositioned it to be in alignment with his agenda.

For example, the focus of the system could have shifted from financial savings to project and risk management for his higher priority initiative. The KPIs could be on earned value, scheduling, and deliverables.  This probably would have sold as it would have been far more appealing to this CIO and supported what was important to him (i.e., his prize if he wins).  The additional financial savings initially identified would just be the icing on the cake, to be applied at a later time.

There were several lessons learned on this effort. In this instance I was focused on my own personal pot of gold (based on logic and common sense), rather than on my customer’s prize for winning. That mistake cost me this deal, but is one I have not made since (which has helped me win many other deals).