The first week I was on the job at PC Week back in 1986 I met Bob Scheier, who also started working for the magazine. Since then we have tracked each other's careers and both of us are still cranking out stories. When he's not trying to scam free web access, Scheier helps IT companies communicate with their customers through white papers, marketing collateral and media consulting. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I usually hate the word "solution" because I consider it overused, meaningless jargon that confuses, rather than educates, the customer. But I recently found myself hoping for, but not finding, a "solution" to an everyday problem, and the incident got me thinking about how we, as customers, can judge what is and isn't appropriate.
The problem was wireless email access from my Handspring Visor Prism. I need to do this several times a week, and would be willing to pay, oh, $20 a month for the privilege. Therefore, I jumped when I saw a promotion from Handspring, Cingular Wireless and VoiceStream Wireless on the Handspring site, offering a basic voice and data service plan for $20 per month with the VisorPhone Module thrown in for free. The offer even included Handspring's Blazer wireless web browser. Using the VisorPhone as a wireless modem, the offer gushed, I could check my "personal or corporate email from the road, surf the Internet from anywhere, instantly message family and friends and more." I signed up.
At first, after ripping open the box and plugging the VisorPhone into my Visor, all went well. The Visor instantly installed recognized the VisorPhone, found the VoiceStream service, and allowed me to make voice calls. I next set up an account with a free ISP (since I imagined doing only an hour of two of web access per month to check my voice mail) and eagerly dialed the local access number.
My authorization to log on was denied...and denied .... and denied. I tried tweaking passwords, fiddling with the log-on scripts, trying different access numbers, to no avail. Finally, after several hours of roaming through various Visor support sites and several emails to Handspring tech support, I found that free ISP's don't support handheld devices because the screens are too small to display the ads on which the free ISPs make their money. Signing up for web access with ISPs who support the Blazer handheld browser would cost another $10 to $20 per month, on top of the $20 per month for the VoiceStream service AND the $50 per month I pay for cable web access at home. So I returned the VisorPhone, VoiceStream graciously let me out of the service contract, and everyone went home happy. Right?
Wrong. I still don't have my wireless email access, but worse, neither VoiceStream nor Handspring got a paying customer (since I assume VoiceStream reimburses Handspring for each VisorPhone which generates an annual service contract.) Counting shipping, order-processing and the cost of the tech support calls I made, both vendors probably lost money on the deal. No sale; no profits; no problem solved – therefore, no solution.
What would have turned this lost opportunity into a genuine solution? My suggestions:
1) The only true solution is a complete solution. If VoiceStream or Handspring had bundled access to a handheld-friendly ISP – even at a $5 cost per month to the end customer – into the deal, they would probably still have me as a customer. You can't get access to the web without an ISP, a piece Handspring and the carriers left out of their offering. It's not a solution if a customer has to go looking for such missing pieces.
2) A true solution doesn't overstate its capabilities. By this I mean the customer knows what the products and services they're buying can and cannot do out of the box. If I had known up-front about the problems of finding an ISP, I would have known the VisorPhone/voice service bundle wasn't a good way to solve my email problem. Not only would this have saved me frustration, but would have saved Handspring and VoiceStream the support and transaction hassles that turned this into a money-loser for them. When the customer gets surprised, nobody (except FedEx or UPS) gets rich from the resulting product returns and service cancellations.
3) A true solution is easy to use. If the customer has to spend hours on help lines or fiddling with system configurations, you haven't solved their problem. The first time they see an error message that isn't easily understandable, or a problem that forces them to search web sites for an answer, you've dropped out of the "solutions" category. To me, a solution means I don't have to think about the technical problem and can get on with my work.
Should I have thought about the need for an ISP before signing up for my VisorPhone? Absolutely. Am I a cheapskate for not being willing to pay an ISP for even occasional web access? Probably. But the point is, the vendor forced me to learn about these hassles and trade-offs on my own, instead of including everything I needed, pointing out the true costs up-front and letting me make an informed decision.
For you vendors out there, selling real "solutions" isn't just about being nice and generating warm and fuzzy customer relationships. It's about making real money from what you're selling, instead of just burning up time and effort and churning customers. Ask yourself if what you're selling 1) contains everything needed to solve the customer's problem; 2) that you accurately disclosing everything it can and cannot do, and 3) that it is easy to use.
If it doesn't meet these three criteria, then it isn't a "solution" -- and you're asking for trouble by selling it as such.
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entire contents copyright 2002 by David Strom, Inc.
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