Unfortunately, the new year has not wiped the supply chain slate clean. Sweeping
disruptions, shortages, and supply issues will likely plague manufacturing for much of 2022. In response, one of the biggest names in technology—Microsoft —is offering up several cloud-based solutions.
There’s some merit to Microsoft’s plan to modernize the supply chain by more broadly understanding the relationship between demand, what’s happening on the shop floor, and global dynamics. But it’s probably not going to improve things in the short term—time is presumed to be the best medicine for the current problem.
These solutions also overlook a persistent problem when it comes to bringing tech to manufacturers: small manufacturers and those selling technology often don’t relate to one another. That might be oversimplifying the problem. Certainly, some small manufacturers understand technology, and some of the best tech salespeople know how to effectively communicate on factory floors. But generally, this is a big hurdle for manufacturing’s broader embrace of Industry 4.0.
With that as a backdrop, here are four things that salespeople and the consultant class should avoid when reaching out to small manufacturers.
Don’t Use Consultant Speak or Tech Talk
Too many consultants and people involved in selling technology use hocus-pocus words, nebulous language, or technical jargon that doesn’t resonate with most manufacturers. This isn’t just about being overly technical, although that is a problem. It’s also about using framing that works best in a Fortune 500 boardroom—e.g., talk of synergies or enterprise-wide and regional integration of hundreds of machines.
Most manufacturing executives, particularly those who have been running companies for a long time, want to know, in plain language, what a new piece of technology will do and how it will fit into their operation. But instead of being told how a sensor will provide information on the operational efficiency of ten machines in real time, they hear talk of things like enterprise-wide digitization of the shop floor. That kind of talk, especially early on, makes it nearly impossible to get to the next stage with potential customers, i.e., explaining what a new piece of technology will do and how it will fit into their operation.
Don’t Develop Solutions in Search of Problems
This is, of course, a well-known problem for startups. Many of them pour vast amounts of time and money into a piece of technology that, while innovative, doesn’t solve any problems for intended customers and ultimately fails as a result. Last year, I asked my colleague Brandon Cornuke, vice president of strategy and startup services at MAGNET and adjunct professor of design and innovation at Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, about this problem. “Not everyone is in the right position to bring a product to life just because they have the idea,” Cornuke said.
Innovators should begin by researching pain points for potential customers. Getting this kind of information from large groups or forums is a somewhat played-out approach and not as effective as it once was. More effective—though harder to pull off—is working with a friendly manufacturer who can help you make sure your solution and their problems align.
Put another way, it’s better to design solutions on your friend’s time than on your future customers’ time. Further, expecting potential customers to tell you their problems after you go to market is a bad idea. If you can find a solution before going to market, you might have something that you can scale, as manufacturers that make comparable products have a lot in common, including their pain points. This is especially true for software developers who face stiff competition and whose competitive advantage is all about solving the right problem without making customers do much of the work.
Don’t Show the Cadillac First
Manufacturers, like most people, are loathe to change. So, while you might make an impression by telling the leader of a manufacturer that your product will entirely change their organization in three months, you might also scare them into not acting at all.
Instead, set realistic aspirations about what your product can do for them over the next few years without trying to describe their organization’s wildly different future state. This approach to explaining change is especially important for the many multi-generational manufacturers with traditional top-down management styles.
That doesn’t mean the leaders of such companies are totally opposed to change. It just means that they might want to hear about the other models before getting the sales pitch for the proverbial Cadillac.
Don’t Treat Manufacturing Like Other Industries
While quite a bit about manufacturing has changed in recent decades, the end product, the mentality from the front office, and the makeup of the workforce have remained relatively constant. That’s why applying the same sales techniques as you would when speaking with a knowledge economy company probably won’t work.
For instance, in pitching to the leaders of a manufacturing company, it’s important to understand what they’re facing when it comes to talent. Many of their employees might not have gone to college but, over time, they have developed specific and valuable skills. Replacing them isn’t easy, especially given current labor issues, and making their day-to-day lives more difficult with ill-fitting tech solutions is the last thing a smart company leader will want to do.
It’s also important to understand the industry’s current standing when it comes to technology. A tech executive I know recently lamented that he couldn’t get manufacturers to understand the benefits of 5G. I told him that for companies that don’t rely on that much data—who are doing fine for now using QuickBooks rather than a more extensive enterprise resource planning system—there simply isn’t a need for faster wireless service. At least, not yet.
These tips aren’t limited to guiding organizations that sell to manufacturers. They’re also beneficial for those offering counsel to manufacturers. If you’re trying to sell technology or advice while employing one or more of the “don’ts” above, you’re almost certainly someone a manufacturer will try to avoid rather than welcome into their business.
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