In the previous two articles I’ve tried to apply his principles to local IOCs and to hosted PBX providers, but in this article things get personal. Do I even have a strategy in my own business? And if so, what is it?
If you really don’t care about me and my business, you can always skip down to the “Challenge for you” section at the end which concludes this entire series of articles.
Who are my clients?
My business is targeting regional service providers, based in the US, who own Metaswitch equipment. These are small to medium businesses, typically with 10-250 employees. (The brevity of my answer shows that I’ve thought about this question, at least, before.)
What needs am I serving?
Initially I was primarily serving a need for advanced technical expertise in Metaswitch products and the surrounding technologies (VoIP for example). This manifested itself in services that helped with migrations, updated switch translations, provided technical escalation for trouble tickets, advised on hardware EOL issues, helped roll-out hosted PBX, and so on.
That position worked well as an entry point into a relationship with my clients, but in many cases the relationship has expanded beyond that. Since my background combines technical expertise with many years in management in both support and operations, in some cases my relationship with my clients has evolved so that I’m also providing input on personnel, hiring decisions, network evolution strategy, standard operating procedures, product strategy, and so on.
So I wear a lot of hats, which I enjoy – and of course that’s a big part of why I wanted to run my own business in the first place (because I love variety and learning new things) but I wonder if that makes my positioning a little muddled.
In what way are my business activities distinct from those of my competitors?
This is an interesting question, and really depends on who we consider to be my competitors.
- Many telecoms consultants are focused on carrier compensation, government regulations, funding and running RFPs for new capital expenditures – whereas I have little expertise in any of those things, and so my activities are more technically oriented.
- In the technical space, I rely (to a large extent) on my history at Metaswitch (much of it in technical roles) to allow me to be much more effective than other generalist telecoms consultants for the particular projects that relate to Metaswitch products.
- While my mix of technical skills plus management plus strategy is perhaps confusing from a positioning standpoint, it also adds to my distinctiveness. At least a couple of my clients have commented that they find it valuable to be able to discuss both business and technical problems with me (and that we can discuss how they impact one another).
In some cases my competition may simply be “Metaswitch support” – if a service provider already has a support contract with Metaswitch, why would they need to hire a consultant to provide specialist Metaswitch expertise?
That’s a fair question, and this is where we can really see the difference in activities come to the fore. The purpose of any vendor support team is to help diagnose and fix problems in their product, whereas many service providers need help using the product in their network – a network which includes products from a variety of other vendors – and many of the challenges involve figuring out how the different devices are interacting with each other and how best to configure them to roll out a particular product… or to resolve a particular technical problem… or to build a better business.
So my activities are focused around successfully completing the customer project, whereas a vendor support team’s activities are much more limited. Of course, on the flip side a vendor support team can fix bugs and provide software upgrades – and these are activities I can’t do. So there are pros and cons to both sets of activities, but (critically) they are distinct.
In part I can improve my distinctive expertise through continued learning – my goal is to expand the range of my thinking and enhance the uniqueness of my perspective through my writing, so that I can provide greater value to my customers. However it’s not only about knowledge, I think it can also be about tools and products – exploring some unique ways that I can help service providers to expand their feature set as a result of working with me. This is definitely an area where I need to grow.
What kind of strategy do I have?
Going back to the article, Michael Porter listed out three different ways in which a company could create a unique and valuable competitive strategy (individually or in combination). As a reminder, he said that a company could choose to
- serve few needs of many customers
- serve broad needs of few customers
- serve broad needs of many customers in a narrow market that is hard for competitors to access.
Having just reviewed my business in these past few paragraphs, I think perhaps my initial strategy was to focus on serving “few needs” – highly specialist Metaswitch expertise – but that perhaps my goal should be to use that technical specialty position as an entry point into relationship with many customers. From there my business can hopefully expand to serve a broader range of needs for those customers (“needs-based positioning”) covering technical projects, but also product enhancements, operational best practices, strategy, and so on.
So there you have it – I’m discovering this in real-time as I write – the long-term strategy for Award Consulting is a “needs-based” strategic position where we seek to meet broad needs of regional carriers for technical and strategic expertise.
Challenge for you
If you’re selling hosted VoIP to small businesses is there a compelling reason that a business should choose to purchase your services rather than any one of your competitors – a reason that doesn’t involve being “higher quality” or “cheaper” or having “better customer service”.
I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers. I’m just a guy with some industry experience who listened to an article and took the time to think through at least some of the consequences.
Every business needs a strategy. I need a strategy. You need a strategy. We need to pick a way to be different that involves a trade-off. And then find more ways to be different. And then, even more, ways that build on those first differences, so that eventually each business is starkly different in a way that’s hard to copy.
This distinctiveness is what allows a business to provide great value to certain clients in a way that delights those clients and allows the business to make a healthy profit. The alternative is to fight a never-ending battle to be that little bit cheaper or that little bit better than our competition – that is a long, hard road… and I doubt there’s a pot of gold at the end of it.