April 20, 2017      

DELFT, the Netherlands — Robotics and autonomous technologies are still in the early stages of broad commercial use, and the learning curve remains high for many end users. To ensure increased adoption, solution providers have to become well-informed about targeted markets, stay inquisitive about end-user needs, and manage expectations when introducing technologies to potential clients.

A highly insightful discussion between end users and robotics manufacturers on the growing use of drones in the energy sector took place at RoboBusiness Europe 2017 here this week. The panel provided a unique view into the dynamics of the buy-sell relationships and reinforced a few fundamental guidelines vendors should adhere to when offering new technologies to companies.

Understand end-user and market needs

The discussion brought to the forefront the golden rule of technology/solution selling: “Know thy customers and their market.” A winning sales strategy should be driven by the understanding that a vendor is offering a solution and not a product, the panelists said.

“Many times we see a company, especially start-ups, approach us without understanding our business model and what we are in need of, or the expected outcome. Sometimes there is what feels like a lot of coaching just to get them to understand the model, the value chain, and the expectations,” said Dhwajan Chavan, a consultant with Shell Oil. “We don’t mind providing that level of guidance in an informal setting or at a university level, but otherwise it’s very time-consuming and hard to engage and do business.”

Never assume

Rules of selling technology

Pieter Franken, managing director of Skeye BV, a U.K.-based drone survey and inspection company, spoke to the need for service providers, even experienced ones, to never make assumptions. They should be prepared to adjust expectations of the work required.

“This is not just about working with new companies. It’s interesting because the requirements are never the same with big companies. They can all be very different when negating the terms and scope of work,” said Franken. “For example, we do a lot of work with Shell, and you never know how rigs are operating in one region to the next. We really had to learn something new each time. It’s really part of the journey.”

Know when to promote and when to discuss

The panel agreed that vendors often oversell their solutions to create market buzz, garner investments, and drum up business, especially at early-stage companies. Once a vendor has an audience with a company, the panel agreed that a humble and honest conversation about capabilities and meeting needed requirements must transpire.

“It is really the worst thing you can do as a technology service provider. In most cases, we are trying to tackle an immediate need and working against a deadline and can’t afford to waste time or money,” said Peter Slater, technology implementation lead at Costain Group PLC, a leading engineering provider in the U.K.

“The moment you step in with a client, the promotion has to stop because it raises expectations,” he said. “If you can meet them, fine. If you can’t, it’s highly aggravating.”

Slater followed by speaking to the classic business management strategy used to elevate customer satisfaction — “underpromise and overdeliver.”

“When you get into the room, don’t worry about more promotion or underselling. You are already in the room, and once you make a deal, deliver what you said you could deliver,” Slater said. “No matter what it is, no matter what they paid for it — they have already agreed to pay you, so you already win.”

Manage expectations and provide guidance

Just as important as it not to exaggerate capabilities, the panel agreed it is equally important to manage misconceptions and assumed expectations.

Franken said he has seen his share of misunderstandings by potential clients about the real capabilities of drone technology or the best uses of drones.

“I’ve had companies communicate crazy ideas of what they think is possible or pitch ideas on how our drones can be used,” he said. “It’s very clear the level of education and understanding still needed about the real benefits and how the drones are best used.”

As an example, Franken said a company had communicated that it wanted to purposely fly a drone with a flare tip attached to it — toward large ignition unit that had shut down. The company clearly understood that more than likely the drone would go up in flames and be destroyed in the process.

“You really have to sit down with a company and really try to get to what they are wanting to solve for and achieve. This gives you the best opportunity to explain the value and how the technology can be applied,” Franken said. “If the drone is not the right solution, be willing to communicate that.”

Franken said in the case of the company that wanted to sacrifice the drone as a flying matchstick, he explained the best technology for addressing the issue.

“I explained a better use of our system was to send the drones around on a schedule to determine where there might be potential system failure so they can be addressing the issues ahead of time and not worry about reigniting a system,” he said.

Sometimes, managing expectations means also addressing end users’ preconceived notions about how a technology works. As Franken said, they can place some users into the bucket of “a little knowledge can sometimes be dangerous.”

“Sometimes we hear a customer say, ‘Well you have to have a 4k camera on the drone,’ or this or that, so it’s capable of doing whatever function. In those cases, I approach it like ‘Forget what you think you need because people love to come up with lists of I need this this and this,'” Franken said. “Again, you have to get to the root of the problem you are trying to solve for and evaluate and determine the right approach and solution.”