Collaboration Vendors: Eat thy own dogfood

You don’t necessarily have to be a customer of your own product or service for it to be amazing. Just because you make or sell artery stents, or pasteurization equipment, or flapjack flippers doesn’t mean you have to be a heart patient, a farmer, or a short-order cook.


Best. Spatula. Ever.
(Not a cook, but it’s what I’ve heard)

But if you are a Unified Communications / videoconferencing vendor, you had better be using your own stuff, at least some of the time!

Don’t get me wrong. You don’t have to use it all of the time for every conversation or every interaction within and outside your team or company. But if you find your company’s teams not using your own product in situations where you recommend that others do, I’d say there is some issue with either your product, your understanding of how to use it, or both.

Why the itch to write this?
Why this entry? Well, I’ve been in the videoconferencing and collaboration space on and off since around 1996 (see the Wikipedia entry for CU-SeeMe you whippersnappers you.) And I am floored by the number of times either I or someone that I know has been asked to move their family in order even be considered for employment at a company whose main product supports remote collaboration. On the other side of the coin, I am equally floored by the great opportunities that leading-edge collaboration companies sometimes leave on the table to tell authentic stories about how their own internal teams successfully deploy and use their own technologies to get stuff done.

Things are finally looking up!
I am heartened by growing vendor recognition that investing in educating customers and the market on when and where their products excel—and where they don’t—has an ROI. It takes a great salesperson to admit when their product isn’t a solution and helps customers integrate other solutions—or sends them elsewhere completely—to effectively solve their problem.

So, in the list form “demanded by the state-of-the-art content marketing folks” I hereby present my list.

Six recommendations to collaboration vendors for using (and telling others about how you use) your own solutions

1. Insist that your executive team use your product
If anyone with a title of director or above can’t use your product without an executive assistant or IT person helping, you need to address one or both of these two issues:

a. Your product needs to be easier to use

b. You need to better teach internal folks what business tasks your product is best for and which tasks it shouldn’t be used for.

Then, get to your product and support and training teams to build programs to help your customers become more successful based on what you’ve learned from eating your own dogfood.

2. Honestly communicate to your customers when your solution is appropriate—and when it isn’t
For example, if you run an Agile development team in-house that subscribes to the “all development and product managers/product owners must be co-located”, then don’t try to sell remote collaboration tools to other companies whose development teams also believe in co-location for development teams.

Unless you share an honest opinion of what tasks, what kinds of roles, and what kinds of personalities will likely work with your collaboration solutions in an Agile environment and which ones probably won’t.

Or if you have recently moved your entire team to one location, or refuse to hire new talent at remote locations without insisting that they relocate their families, then please do your customers the favor of not trying to convince them that they should do something your own firm would not.

Unless you help teach them the conditions and team dynamic under which a remote team using collaboration tools will and won’t likely work.

3. Make multiple sales calls using your own product
As a corollary to #1, ensure your sales folks can use your product without IT or sales engineering help.  Then, during the sales cycle, have your salespeople sell your solution withyour solution—without getting on a plane. Notice I didn’t say exclusively use your solution to sell.

The first call will probably be on the phone. The first visit will likely be face to face. But the sales cycle better have your team using your product in multiple tasks and under multiple business conditions. Because that’s what you are asking the customer to believe in.

If your sales team does this, the customer will be impressed enough to realize that perhaps they too can sell (or do other tasks with their customers) remotely using your solution. If your sales team can’t do this, well, see 1.a. and 1.b. above. They hold here too.

Watch the length of your sales cycle diminish dramatically if your team can actually do what you say the customer should be able to do. Traverse the firewall? Have minimal setup issues? The video and audio “just work”? Mark-up documents and whiteboards together?  Bring in people on the fly? If you can do this in a real-world sales situation, imagine how impressed the customer will be! You will teach them that it can be done, and sell them something to do it with.

4. Explain when in-person communication is essential, and admit when it isn’t
At one of the UC firms I previously worked with, our permanent and consulting marketing and product management team was truly distributed. At times, there were more than 12 of us at 12 locations (+/-), and we all worked around the US and the world. We worked online collaboratively in sessions where we created work product and in sessions where we were solely concerned with reporting and review.

Despite our distance, we all physically met somewhere in the world in-person at least once a quarter. And subsets of us met face-to-face multiple times a year at conferences, trade shows, and before or after customer calls.  In-person was an essential part of the mix! Don’t fib.  You know it is.

5. If you can just “email the slides”—then just email the %@^$% slides!
If you call a meeting where a majority of the participants can’t, or won’t, join into a video- or web- conference and you end up asking a many of the participants to just follow-along on their own copy of the slides (and they don’t say too much), you need to address one or both of these issues:

a. You probably didn’t need a real-time meeting. Want to get buy-off or comments on the slides from a team who will only listen partially while they do something else (like check email or even drive)?  Nah. It’s probably best to allow them to comment offline or in a 1:1 phone call with you where you can get their opinions faster and with more focus from them.

b. If input to or reaction on the “slides” is essential, use online meeting widgets – like giving different folks the podium, requesting markup, or even (heaven forbid) fun tasks like some simple games or brainstorm activities. After all, if the meeting is about the leader droning on and reading slides, why do we insist on calling it “interactive?”  (This issue is much larger than UC and videoconferencing. I wrote an essay 8 Ways to Present without PowerPoint that scratches the surface on this topic).

And, #6, the biggie…

6. UC and Videoconferencing has emerged. Sell it in new ways!
This market has finally emerged. Finally! Hurray! (Really, it is REALLY here.) OK, it may be called something different, but people actually working together on a regular basis in multiple locations effectively…  It’s here.

Finally, really really REALLY online video collaboration is here. Really!  Hurray!

Finally, really really REALLY online video collaboration is here. Really! Hurray!      [Flickr/ADoseofShipBoy]

The message is getting to the market in so many different ways and for so many different reasons (It’s built into my tablet! My ‘Gen-Y’ staff expects it! My network can finally handle it!).

Finally! I am so happy, after educating and selling this idea and these methodologies for so many years that the perfect storm of network speed and availability, ease-of-use, device promulgation, user-demand, and economic reality have all aligned.

So, vendors (and leading customers), let’s eat our own dogfood! When it tastes bad, let’s make sure we fix the next batch. And when it tastes good, let’s not be afraid to show others that not only can online collaboration in real-time “get it done” in so many vertical markets, but that done well, it can actually help make help make those verticals more efficient and their teams more cohesive.