Our Customers are Different! The Edge of Knowledge

We often talk about how selling in the Learning & Knowledge industry is different from selling in other industries.

It is not only because our offerings are different, it actually begins with how our customers are different.

The purpose of the L&K industry is to enhance the ability of people to perform more and bigger tasks so that they can make their own industry grow!

We must realize that the customer in this industry (Learning & Knowledge) is usually different from customers of other industries, in several ways.

1.  The first and most significant difference is in the customer’s ability to spec what they want. Because the need being addressed by them has resulted from a lack of knowledge or skill in the first place, the customer themselves do not have the ability to solve the problem by specifying the solution.  Else they would have solved the problem anyway.

This leads to a paradoxical situation.  Where business and management gurus tell us to meet the customer’s requirements, in this case the requirements need to be developed by us, the professionals, to address the needs of our customers.  At best our customers can give us their needs, their preferences, their expectations, and their constraints.  This actually is the highest domain of selling – diagnostic, consultative selling.

2.  The second difference in customers of the learning & knowledge industry is that they also do not know whether the solution we are proposing is going to solve their problem or not.  This challenge emerges because of the unpredictability of human behavior, and the managers’ inability to predict accurately what the result of better trained staff will be, beyond the hope that they will perform better.

3.  The third difference is that customer delight is rarely achieved by the same level of delivery again.  The level of delivery – in terms of content, presentation, insights, creative and critical thoughts presented – needs to keep progressing for our customers to remain consistently delighted.  This is where our industry fails when quality improvement models advocating consistency are implemented, like ISO 9001.  The models are mistakenly interpreted by us to lead towards consistency of delivery, while actually to succeed, we need consistency of customer delight, which is rarely achieved by the same product delivered again.


4.  A fourth difference is that our services are ‘invisible’ to the untrained eye.  It can often be presumed that it is just communication that we build, and how hard is that for someone good with language.  In reality, language is only the medium of the art of instruction.  The art of instruction involves a keen appreciation of the context and motivation of the learners, and then to address their needs and wants with and experience that satisfies them, that brings ‘content’ to the ‘discontent’.  These two necessities require the Instructional Designer to not only be sensitive to the personalities and environment of the learners, but also to the concepts and practices of the domain they will benefit from.  This leads to the art of leading from learning, much beyond the mashing of words to ‘build’ learning material that reads right.

These Perspectives  highlight the need to consult and collaborate with customers, on the identification of the design inputs for the solution as well as on the benefits of the solution once it is implemented.  The professionals servicing the needs have to be experts, with knowledge to add to what the situation demands.

This is the primary reason why selling in the Learning & Knowledge industry is always consultative.  The business that is there to be had without consultancy is low value, competitive, effort-based and routine.  If we consider the Learning & Knowledge industry to involve Creativity, the business that is there to be had without ‘selling’ also will not require very ‘creative’ contribution from the suppliers, and will be far lower in value.

It is only fair to accept that every professional in the industry cannot be an expert at everything to begin with.  But that’s the key – to selling, and to delivering knowledge or skills.  So how do the professionals address this gap?  By making sure they are the fastest learners, they learn faster than the speed at which the situation changes.  They may not be experts to begin with, but with a reasonable and structured approach to learning, they can assimilate expertise faster than anyone else, and then simplify and deliver it to the customer scenario while there is still value to solving the ‘problem’ they want to address.  By the end of a project, the professionals certainly become the experts at the topic, and they take the least time to become such solutioning experts.

This makes it amply evident that the most fundamental skill to hone for professionals in the knowledge industry, is learning.  To learn how to learn is what we become the best at, and this gives us the edge of knowing more, the edge of knowledge.

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Business Development

Business Development is the strategic growth driver that every business depends upon, to continue to remain a business, and a growing one at that.  Businesses are developed at two levels, first from a strategic visionary level, and second from a go to market and execution level.  While the strategic vision sets the right business framework in place, the go to market and execution delivers output to customers and growth to the organization.  Business Development remains the greatest challenge even for established businesses and corporations worldwide.

Lets understand ‘business’ in a way that can help us understand what we need to do to develop business.

According to the Dictionary, Business has three meanings:

Business (noun)

1.  an occupation, profession, or trade: His business is poultry farming.

2.. the purchase and sale of goods in an attempt to make a profit.

3.  a person, partnership, or corporation engaged in commerce, manufacturing, or a service; profit-seeking enterprise or concern.


Also, BUSINESS as a bacronym reads:

Benefits Upscaled from Solutions Implemented for Needs Experienced by (customer) Segments, Sustainably.


Trying to define Business

A Business is the result of our efforts to sustainably grow our profit from solutions we define and implement for target customer segments, which they benefit from. 

There are several key words in this definition of Business.  These key words are critical for Business, and therefore Business Development.

The first key word is “efforts”.  We must make efforts to reach our goals.  It is these efforts that give rise to the enterprise.  Without efforts, there can be no change in state.  This is very much like Newton’s Fist Law of Motion.  Our efforts become our industry.  It is because we are industrious that we make the change happen, make the benefit happen.  It is clear also that our efforts have to be focused on the benefit being worked towards.  Efforts that are not directed, not aimed at the desired benefit are a waste of our resources.  Efforts are justified by the results alone.

The second key word is “solutions”.  Our efforts have to result in solving our customers’ problem(s).  If we do not solve any problem, or do not address any opportunity that is valued by our customers, we cannot have a business, let alone grow it.  Our solutions are the ‘value propositions’ which our customers value, what they benefit from.  Of course, we can only deploy solutions for which we have or build competencies. Our competencies depend on the abilities that we have or build towards our vision for our usefulness in our world.

The third key word is “profit”.  Profit is the margin between price and cost.  The amount of profit that a business is justified in making has many principles, but let us understand it in one simple way.  There would be an amount the customers would have to spend or invest (customers’ cost) if they were to meet their needs by their own efforts.  This would typically be much higher than what a supplier’s costs would be, because for the supplier it would be their core competency, while for the customer it would typically be a digression from their core business.  The amount of profit agreed upon therefore, lies between the supplier’s cost and the customers’ cost.  This ensures that its a win-win business relationship, so that the supplier gets more than what it costs them, and customers pay less than they would have to.  Both customer and supplier profit.  In the economic sense, profit is essential for businesses to not only survive, but to grow as well. This leads us to the fourth key word – growth.

The fourth key word is “growth”.  Growth is imperative.  Without growth businesses are not be able to survive.  The reason for this is simple.  Unless our profits grow at least as much as inflation, we wouldn’t even be able to maintain a livelihood or a lifestyle.  Lets take inflation as it is, typically at 10% per annum.  Given this rate of inflation, 10% growth in profits is neutralized by inflation itself, and we’re back to the same level of profitability as before.  To satisfy the growth aspirations of the business and individuals associated with it, the business profitability needs to grow by multiples of inflation, first to grow the profitability, then to support growing individuals, and finally to reinvest in the growth of the business.  Again, growth is imperative!

The fifth key word is “sustainably”.  Sustainability of a business is a key differentiator between a business and an initiative.  The sustainability of the growth in business and profit is what makes one business stand taller than others.  Without sustainability, businesses become seasonal rushes of commercial and developmental activity.  Sustainability comes from a critical mass being achieved, and with the investment in the vision to develop people and processes to focus on “efforts”, “solutions”, “profit”, and “growth”.


The Eight Practices of Business Development

1. Identifying Core competences and differentiating value

2. Validating the Needs Analysis – for the Business and the Customer

3. Identfying the Target Segments – Business and Consumer – Market scope and size

4. Defining Value Propositions – Entry points, Sustainable, Scalable

5. Plan for Development and Delivery of Value Propositions – make/buy,

6. Establishing Partnerships – G2M, Consulting, Expertise, Suppliers, Execution

7. Supply Chain Management – Roll-outs, Execution

8. Developing and Implementing Business Improvement Strategies and Plans – Continually


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