How Would You Define A Customer Outcome?

Executives at large accounts with complex problems want more than your “solution” – and rarely have a line item in their budget for your offering.  Instead, they have an initiative, with a goal, an objective…and a desired outcome.  And they lament that salespeople are often unprepared to have a discussion about the buyer’s issues and where they can help.

A customer’s desire for a business outcome is an important force that’s separating strategic vendors from commodity suppliers. We think that this idea of an outcome — in fact, an emerging Outcome Economy —needs to be clearly understood as being different from simply providing solutions and benefits.  So what is the difference?  Are you selling outcomes for your key customers?  How would you know?  And how can you help account teams have conversations about them?

We’re interested in your thoughts on what qualifies, in the customer’s eyes, as an outcome.  Here are our initial thoughts.  What are we missing?  What would you change?

  • An achieved end state.  An outcome is grounded in reality, and includes all of the things that the customer does in that future state. It’s more than the ‘desired’ end state, which can sometimes be unrealistic at worst, aspirational at best. Describing an outcome includes addressing the practical realities that the customer will face to achieve its business goals.
  • Verified through measurable results.  Those results might not always be financial, but still testable and observable so that there’s little doubt about whether they have been achieved.
  • Tied to a funded “top-level” initiative. An outcome is tied to an initiative that is chartered and funded, and isn’t subordinate to, or rolled under, a broader plan. It’s important to get the ‘altitude level’ right. A goal like “giving our field support team handheld devices and applications” is a means to some greater end, like “Near-zero customer downtime.” Benefits should be traceable up the chain from projects like installing a faster wireless network – through business metrics like departmental productivity – all the way to fiscal goals and ultimately corporate earnings.
  • Defined through the lens of a particular executive responsible for the end state. An initiative’s results and challenges and their relative importance will vary depending on the perspective of different people within the organization. The perspective of the accountable individual — the one who’s job is at risk if the initiative fails — matters most.
  • Colored by the interests of related stakeholders.  Achieving outcomes takes coordination and support across functional areas with a company.
  • Reached over time though a problem-solving lifecycle. The path to achieving the end state is bigger than selecting, procuring, and deploying a vendor’s product. The arc can begin as early as defining the right core problem and extend well beyond ensuring user adoption.

We see “outcomes” as an important way to frame conversations with clients and meet them on their terms and Forrester plans to explore this more deeply. What else would you like to hear on outcomes?

Comments

Customer Outcome

That's a very hot topic! Focusing on customer outcome will become a major competitive advantage for all tech vendors and it will be a huge challenge to shape sales organizations and their support structures from a solution selling and benefit orientation to an outcome and business value selling orientation!
You already addressed important customer outcome characteristics! “Giving your field support team handheld devices and applications” is an excellent example for an activity with a defined deliverable (e.g. number of people equipped with handheld devices) but the business outcome is much more, it could be as you mentioned “near-zero customer downtime” as well as an increase in productivity or a reduced SG&A. Another example is - as we discussing this topic in the tech sales enablement blog – implementing a sales enablement platform which is a classical solution approach with benefits as e.g. reduced search time for sales reps, more efficient content generation processes or collaboration targets. But the outcome is much more: at the end of the day it will be something like e.g. increasing revenue, increasing share of wallet in strategic accounts or also here reduced SG&A.
On the one hand it's important to differentiate between deliverable and outcome and on the other hand it is important to recognize their dependance. A deliverable is often an important prerequisite - mandatory to meet outcome objectives. The crucial point here is the timeline between both the deliverable and the measurable outcome. Often a deliverable is implemented in one period but the outcome is often traceable not before the following period. This correlation has to be considered in the very beginning when roadmaps are designed and outcome objectives are defined.
From my viewpoint there is a lot of potential in the outcome approach. First, thinking from the desired customer outcome backwards, different solutions can be interesting to meet these objectives – not only one e.g. “to equip the field support team with handheld devices”. Second, on the way to the desired outcome additional services along the value chain could be interesting for the customer. That allows a lot of creativity for the sales reps who are familiar with the “model – map – match” approach. Getting there will be hard work - especially transforming a whole organization in that direction!

Time-to-Outcome

Great comments, Tamara. You raised a key point that I hadn't given enough attention to. That's "the timeline between both the deliverable and the measurable outcome." I think it's incredibly important to be clear and realistic about this gap, both with the sales force and, in turn, with customers. I think it also speaks to the real duration of the customer relationship. When viewed as a "customer buying cycle," there's little reason to stick around for the outcome. The customer believes it, you sold the deliverable, you're done. But viewed as a "customer problem solving life cycle," the relationship must extend through to the time when results are achieved -- even if it just means calling and asking "How's it going?" Genuine empathy for the client's desire for business outcomes is the foundation for being regarded as a strategic vendor.