Could The iPad Kill Solution Selling?
The much publicized failure of one of the world’s largest iPad contract represents another ‘nail in the coffin’ of Solution Selling
You have heard people say that Solution Selling is dead. But what you probably don’t realize is that the iPad may be hastening its demise.
More specifically the much publicized failure of one of the world’s largest iPad orders could accelerate the demise of buyer pre-tender consultation with suppliers everywhere.
The iPad’s New Claim to Fame
In August 2014, one of the largest educational technology project world-wide, stalled. The project, which involved the planned purchase of over 700,000 iPads for Los Angeles students and teachers, came un-stuck after it emerged that education officials had been talking to the successful bidder in the run up to the bidding process.
The story is further evidence of an increasingly ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to the application of buying rules and procedures. But given the publicity involved it could scare other buyers off engaging with sellers in advance of any bid/tender process.
What is being called the ‘LA School iPad Scandal’ threatens to accelerate the demise in pre-tender consultation between buyers and sellers and thereby to put another nail in the coffin of Solution Selling.
Innovating In Education
In early 2014 the giant Los Angeles unified school district announced plans to buy iPads for its students and teachers.
It was an exciting project one that put the giant school district at the forefront of innovation in learning. Valued at over a billion dollars, the project included the purchase of 700,000 iPads each fitted with learning software.
Buying 700,000 iPads Ain’t Easy
The tender for the project was won by Pearsons (the world’s largest publishing company) in conjunction with Apple.
Fast forward to August 2014 and the project is in turmoil reports NPR News. The superintendent of the school district has put the contract for the technology out for new bids.
The fairness of the bid process was called into question after the discovery of emails between district officials and Pearons executives.
Pre-Tender Emails Emerge
A trail of emails revealed that Pearson executives had began conversations with school district officials up to a year before the bidding process commenced. That is according to reporter Annie Gilbertson of NPR member station KPCC.
The emails revealed a particularly important lunch between the Pearon’s CEO and district management at which the project was injected with new ideas and energy (as well as a new partner; Apple).
A Very Costly Supplier Lunch
Regardless of who picked up the tab, the lunch between the senior executives would turn out to be very costly for the School District.
It is reported that the district has already paid for 75,000 iPads – many with Pearson software that cannot be returned.
Added to this are the lengthy time delays involved in the re-tender and of course the risk of litigation.
Meanwhile Discrict Superintendent John Daisey told NPR that ‘he did nothing improper.’
He argued that it was ‘not uncommon to meet companies ahead of a bid’ adding that ‘once the bid opened he followed the rules and cut-off communication’
However some school district board members argued that the approach had ‘stiffled competition’ NPR reports.
This is given credence by the claim that the bid requirements when issued by the educational district ‘looked a lot like what Apple and Pearons had been selling, right down to the technical support and training.’
The full story on the ‘LA School iPad Scandal’ can be found here.
The Implications For Sellers
Like every other procurement-related story that makes the headlines, ‘The Los Angeles iPad Scandal’ is a wake up call for executives charged with major purchase decisions.
The story serves to remind executives that they are at risk of professional embarrassment, or worse, should something go wrong (or be seen to go wrong) with their buying process.
Buying Must Be ‘Squeaky Clean’
‘The Los Angeles iPad scandal’ is further evidence of an increasingly zero tolerance approach to buying.
This ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to buying isn’t limited to the public sphere. It is also emerging in large corporations too where managers don’t want a procurement-related black-mark on their annual review.
The implication is that buying has to be squeaky clean. Buyers have to avoid even the appearance of bias. All this encourages rigid adherence to the rules.
Once the rules and procedures were seen a bureaucratic time-waster. Now many managers see them as a form of risk insurance and personal protection.
Meanwhile the legal profession is the clear winner as public procurement in particular ‘lawyers up.’
This is not a surprise – for many years lawyer have sometimes accounted for up to 50% a certain procurement-related events!
Clearly some lawyers have stopped chasing ambulances and are now chasing procurement accidents!
However the involvement of lawyers can result in the overly zealous or cautious application of the rules.
In the words of one procurement expert ‘the manager has to have the confidence to parse what the lawyer is saying and then to apply common sense to it. The lawyer is not always right, or always practical’.
This is good for managers who are told to implement a total ban on interacting with suppliers – even before a bid is formulated.
Zero Tolerance Means Zero Interaction?
The ‘Zero-Tolerance’ approach to buying has many implications. It means that buyers have stopped taking chances – it is a zero-risk approach.
‘The Los Angeles iPad Scandal’ hints at zero interaction with suppliers. In doing so it threatens to undermine solutions selling, consultative selling, relationship selling and just about every other sales approach.
The question is: ‘Will zero interaction with sellers result in better buying?’ Well we don’t think so. It will result in safer, more ‘by the rules’ buying, but that is not necessarily better.
But, is consultation with suppliers ahead of a tender or bid process wrong? Well, we don’t believe it is. Indeed we encourage collaboration and consultation ahead of the publication of any bid/tender formulation. Why not?
A Dangerous Premise
There is a dangerous underlying premise in the adoption of a zero-tolerance / zero-interaction approach:
It is the belief that sellers don’t have a lot to add over and above what can be put on paper in a tender document, or price quotation. It suggests that the interaction with sellers is a non-essential or non-value adding aspect of the buying process.
This premise is worrying and in respect of the majority of professional salespeople is, we believe; ‘false’.
The Case For Pre-Tender Consultation
We believe that it is a very poor sales person that cannot ask a question or share a customer story that sheds light on something that the buyer may have over-looked, some missing information, a misunderstanding, or false assumption.
You can think of it as ‘free pre-bid consulting’ said a seller in one large organization recently:
‘We spent months in helping a potential customer to define their needs and set out a solution to those needs that was based not just on best practice in their industry but the lessons learned in other industries too…’
‘We provided them with access to our experts, as well as our research and IP. We helped them to define their requirements (include some they had overlooked) and to put them on paper…’
‘That was a major investment on our part to help them get to the point of a tender – it is also risk – after all there was not guarantee that we would win’.
As this quote shows there is two sides to every story. Why shouldn’t buyers take advantage of the expertise and experience of sellers in the formulation of their needs prior to a formal hands-off tender process.
To sum up: surely there is no reason why consultative selling and professional and safe buying cannot go hand in hand.