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Sensemaking: Selling To Customers In The “Simple Quadrant”

by David Brock on May 30th, 2019

This post is the fourth in my series on Sensemaking. For links to the other posts in the series, go to: Sensemaking, The Big Issue Facing Both Our Customers And Us.

In this post, I’ll do a deep dive into how we sell into organizations operating in the Simple Quadrant. As a recap, the Cynefin model is displayed below:

The Simple Quadrant, is characterized by “known-knowns.” With a name like “simple,” people can mis-characterize businesses, thinking of them as simplistic or easy.

They might be anything but that. For example, many manufacturing processes are very challenging and difficult. But they behave in ways that are well known, consequently, they can be well characterized.

We see many part of the organization that may be characterized “Simple.” For example, many manufacturing or process applications can be characterized this way. Many operational or financial functions may be characterized this way. Some organizations may view the procurement function in this quadrant.

Many very mature businesses may have become “simple.” Depending on the market/application maturity, the business may have started as very complex, as patterns start to emerge, and people’s experience gets deeper, the business may mature and move to the complicated space. Still later, as the business matures further, they may move into the simple space.

Many “embedded products,” fit into this Simple Category. The “design in,” may have been a complex or complicated process, but once solutions have been found, the customer may view this as a supply chain/inventory management issue, with primary and secondary supply sources, regular procurement schedules and very predictable purchasing.

In some sense, we can look at many retail businesses, taxi, hotel businesses. They may have been in the simple or complicated quadrants, since they are relatively mature industries. However, new business models or competitors can disrupt them, moving them into the chaotic quadrant. In these industries, we’ve seen them disrupted by Amazon, Uber/Lyft, AirBnB.

While simple is, by no means, easy, the problems in the simple quadrant are very well known and characterized. Generally, in these businesses, there is a “best answer,” or a “best practice” in addressing or solving these problems.

What’s this mean for sales people, hoping to be “sensemakers” to their customers?

While we may recognize these functions or businesses may be in the simple quadrant. The customer, may not recognize this, they may not understand what their problems are or the best ways to solve them.

But we have to be careful, the customer may understand very well. After all, if they have been in the business or function for some time, or have great experience, inevitably they have seen the problems and know the best solutions or answers.

But how to we work with customer addressing problems and solutions in this space?

As the Cynefin model outlines, the method is pretty straight forward:

  1. First, we and the customer must “sense.” By that we mean, we must recognize there is a problem or opportunity. We can characterize and define the problem very clearly. For example, we are having quality problems in manufacturing, we are having throughput problems, we are having delays in billing/invoicing, we may not be responding to customer service issues very well.
  2. Once we have identified the problem, we must categorize it, we must say, “It is ‘THIS’ kind of problem. By categorizing the problem, we are then able to identify the best solution to address the problem.
  3. Once we have identified the best solution to the problem, we respond by implementing the solution that best solves the problem.

There are a number of implications for how sales can work with the customer in the Simple Quadrant.

First, the customer may not recognize the problem is well understood, well characterized, with known “best” solutions. It may simply be their inexperience. As “experts” in this category of problems, we can help guide the customer through the sense, categorize, respond cycle. Making it faster and easier for them to solve the problem.

For customers that are very experienced and know how to identify and characterize the problem (sensing), and categorize it; they may not know the best current solutions. They may be familiar with the way they had solved it in the past, but be unaware of new solutions that better solve the problem. We can educate them on the best current solutions for the problem.

For customers that are experienced with these types of problems, and know the solutions, we help them by making the buying process as easy and efficient as possible. They are knowledgeable buyers and just want a hassle free buying experience.

Many of these buying processes may be very transactional. “We know the problem, we know the solutions, we just want to buy quickly.” There are probably fewer buyers involved in the buying journey, and their buying cycle is likely to be very short.

There are some important implications for customers that are operating in the Simple Context. It’s critical that we have an outstanding digital presence, making it very easy for the buyer to self educate, and possibly even buy. So our marketing, content, and digital strategies become very important in making the buying journey as easy and efficient as possible.

These customers are coming from the point of view of “best practice,” so our marketing and selling strategies must be focused on how our solutions enable their implementation of best practice.

In designing our customer engagement strategies, since we are dealing with known-knowns, we can focus on the efficiency of our sales engagement processes. We can develop highly efficient, very predictable engagement models. Much of what we see in the XaaS “selling methodologies,” are really addressing customers in this Simple Quadrant.

As we look at our “go to customer” strategies, we can be very efficient in how we design them. We know the problems we are the best in the world at solving. We know who these customers are and can segment and target them very well. We know these problems fall into the simple quadrant, and we can develop the best approaches, both in marketing, sales, and customer experience for engaging these customers.

Having said this, we have to be cautious as we look at our strategies. For example, sometimes these problems, or customers having these issues may be in the Complicated Segment. Many XaaS vendors are discovering this. Where their sales approaches have been designed to be very predictable and scalable, some of their customers are changing, they may not be in the Simple domain but may be in the Complicated (or even Complex) domain. Our engagement strategies to address these domains are completely different.

Perhaps the easiest example might be moving from an individual or small department SaaS sale, to an enterprise wide sale.

Alternatively, we may be opportunistic, in changing who we sell to and how we sell within the enterprise. We choose to engage different buyers within our customer. In doing this, those buyers may be operating in a completely different quadrant. It’s easiest to illustrate this through an example.

One of my clients sold basic chemicals. The buying process was well understood and well characterized by all the customers in the market. It was in the Simple Quadrant, and buyers typically were concerned with supply chain management, quality, and price. Stated differently, their products were simple commodities and a commodity buying process was typically the way customers bought.

But we helped our client think about their business differently. We looked at who the actual users of the products were. It turned out, it was product planners, product marketing and designers. These people operated in the Complicated, sometimes Complex quadrants. My client thought, “How can we be helpful to them? How can we engage them?”

They started to design their marketing and sales strategies focused on those people within the enterprise. The issues they discussed with these customers were less about the products, but more about what the customer wanted to achieve and how my client could help reduce product launch risk, field safety issues/failures, product development cost and time, and many other issues.

As we look at our “go to customer” strategies, we have some important choices. It may be better to address the customer “where they are at,” or choose to address a different customer within the enterprise, addressing them where they are at.

Whichever choices we make, the Cynefin model offers us strategies for how we and the customer must work effectively together in whichever quadrant we find ourselves.

In the next post, we will build upon what we have learned about the Simple Quadrant, looking at the Complicated Quadrant.

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3 Comments
  1. Joel lyles permalink

    Hi Dave!

    I absolutely love where you’re going with this experience. Your example of manufacturing processes for the ‘simple’ quadrant is dead-on.

    Funnily enough, there’s an opportunity for savvy sales reps to create some incredible value in this quandrant. Just because the problem is a ‘known known’ and both the strategic outcomes and process are clear doesn’t mean you should commoditize or skimp on the sales process. On the contrary:

    I was contacted by such a sales rep in my old company who had done his homework and it gave me the idea of sales as a career. He didn’t know much about industrial engineering, but he DID know how to navigate a buying process (which, as I learned, involves much more than the close) and was able to help me successfully complete the project.

    • Thanks for the comment Joel, what you will discover as we go through each of the quadrants, there are huge opportunities for sales people to create value in each one. But, I think, the value we create in each quadrant is different and only relevant (or valuable) to that quadrant. When we try to so something that creates value in the Simple Quadrant, applying it to the Complex, I think we will discover it creates no value or negative value. This may be what causes us to be ineffective. We are creating value based on an assumption the customer is in one place, where in reality they are in a completely different place–as a result, our value creation is meaningless.

      Stay tuned…….. 😉

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