by: John Caddell

Last week I wrote about the fuzzy front end of innovation--that time in which a company senses opportunities, generates ideas, and creates concepts which may be developed into new products. It's fuzzy because it doesn't follow a prescribed process, iterates on itself and contains lots of dead ends.

For consumer goods companies, market research and test marketing are kings of the fuzzy front end. For example, P&G sends its marketers out to interview housewives about their cleaning problems to identify ideas for new products. Focus groups try out prototype products while company psychologists analyze their reactions through one-way mirrors.

For companies targeting business customers, by contrast, sales makes a large contribution as a generator of ideas and tester of concepts. The sales team is out at customer sites, hearing their complaints. They have access to the customer to dialogue about solutions the company could provide. They can have the difficult dialogue to assess willingness to pay for something new. In short, they are a vital contributor, along with marketing, to the fuzzy front end.

It takes a special salesperson to work in the fuzzy front end. Since the rewards are out in the future (since there's no product yet and may never be), the salesperson needs to rein in his short-term instincts and be content to make long-term investments in his clients. There's nothing in the fuzzy front end that will close this quarter.

A salesperson involved in the fuzzy front end must also spend a lot of time with company colleagues--marketing, development and operations. There's no sales kit or standard pricing at this stage. Learning happens in parallel with the product team. Sales must be able to articulate the customer's wishes and agree to the compromises that must be made to create a marketable product.

Finally, the salesperson must be able to make the first sale. A business product is nearly impossible to sell without existing references, never mind without a finished product to demo--yet a first sale must occur to enable any others. Early adopters typically have issues--the product will have bugs, the support processes won't yet be standardized. The salesperson who can bring the first customer through that as a positive reference is valuable indeed.

The benefits to salespeople in becoming contributors to this process are immense--salespeople who consult with their clients, take their problems seriously and look for solutions typically gain a trusted status that makes selling much easier. Plus salespeople who master new products first get out in front of the curve and are paid off when the product becomes successful and they are fully prepared to sell it.

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