Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fake It Till You Make It

I recall a particularly ridiculous episode of the Apprentice with Martha Stewart, in which some unwitting contestant said she employed a fake-it-till-you-make-it philosophy with respect to some challenge. Martha all but spat in her face, disgusted by such an attitude, on the grounds that one must always know what one is doing.

I don't necessarily agree. I've had great success faking confidence in certain uncomfortable circumstances, faking interest when I'm truly bored, and even faking comfort in a really bad pair of shoes. Though, notably, I couldn't fake comfort recently in a meeting when my eye all but erupted in pain as I was sitting with some key dealmakers. Eye pain is unfakable. 

Today, however, I am finding myself on the receiving end of fakery - particularly, technological fakery. While I feel reasonably competent in my domain of technology, I wont pretend to be an engineer - or anything close. However, now that I'm speaking with salesfolk from potential vendors in a similar technological domain, it is alarming how my specifications seem to go right over their heads. For example:

Me:  Can you make me a 4 tiered cake, filled with raspberry buttercream, covered in fondant?
Sales: Absolutely. We can make any cake in the free world.
Me: Here's the kicker. I want the tiers to hover above each other. I think I can accomplish that with a lucite block in between the layers, but I need to ensure you put those little pole supports inside the cake, or else the whole thing gets smooshed. And I need them to be clear colored, so they wont show.
Sales: Our cake tiers are each separable, so you shouldn't have any trouble putting a block in between them.
Me: I get it. Separate cakes. But, I need the poles to support the lucite.
Sales: We have never had trouble stacking cakes before.
Me: This is a specific requirement. Some people don't do poles. Others only have black poles. 
Sales: I'm sure we can do this. 

At which point, I ask to have an engineer on the phone next. (Can you tell I have wedding on the brain?)

There is a point where someone tells you "This is an insane requirement. Something that most people can't do." And, with that out - you can save face and simply say "I get it, let me check with our technical team."  I wont lose respect for you. I'll even be happier. And we might just get to have cake together.

The trick to faking is faking only that which you know how to fake. Which, in a sense, is ironically circular, as are all good things in life. 


Tricia said...

Are you wanting the supports that go inside the cake to be clear or the posts that are between the cakes to be clear? (My mom made wedding cakes & I've got years experience watching the process, not making)

Capt. BS said...

Ah, the joys of selling a bunch of highly organized electrons. I suppose the high-level approach isn't too dissimilar from selling furniture, used cars, and other tangible items: identify the needs, highlight the benefits that address those needs, redirect or defer lines of questioning that reveal a competitive weakness to one of the product's strengths, etc. The major difference with tech sales (and especially software sales) is you're selling a black box that is supposed to accomplish some task in some proprietary manner.

It's pretty easy to say that Product X can do A, B, and C if no one at the table (the salesperson included) knows exactly how Product X does/would/ever could accomplish A, B, and/or C. This is especially easy to do if A, B, and C are intangible enough to be qualitatively disputable -- e.g., "improve communication" or "reduce costs" -- but through the magic of the rigged demo and after-the-fact requirements definition, one can (most of the time) make Product X do A, B, C, and perhaps even D by the time the customer actually has it in their hands. (Please note that the developers will forever resent and disrespect the salesperson who created these late-breaking requirements in a vaccuum, especially if it turns out that they are not at all grounded in any sort of reality.)

By contrast, if you're sitting in a furniture store and the salesperson makes a claim about a couch that has a built-in seat warmer/cooler, you can actually sit down on the couch, play with the ass-climate control settings, and decide for yourself whether this is a meaningful feature for you, whether it works to your satisfaction, and so forth. You're not entirely reliant upon (and a hostage to) the salesperson's claims about what the couch is or what it can do.

Generally speaking, a good tech salesperson will address your concern directly, offer to get a technical answer, and get back to you within the same day (i.e., not days or weeks later after several stealth enhancements have been spec'd out, designed, or even built) whether what you're asking for is feasible, what it will take (in terms of time and dollars) to get it done, and (most importantly) ask you whether this is a "must have" or "nice to have" requirement. This approach is all about problem-solving, trust-building, and honest evaluation, rather than redirection, playing defense, and smoke-and-mirrors acts. I'd like to think that it could actually work, but based on what I've seen and heard, I'm skeptical. Alas.

Lilac - Like The Flower said...

Tricia... actually.. the cake was an analogy.. I think I dont want posts in my cake! the layers can stack themselves.

Brian - my that's an alarming photo. Cap'n Jack.. you're exactly right. the problem is that I'm the type of tech buyer who says "I want a computer without a math co-processor and only a 4x CD-ROM" and then the sales guy can't talk me up or around or whatever. And then CompUSA tries to hire me and then finds out I'm only 16. yeah.