Charles sat in the sales meeting and was patiently waiting his turn to speak. The CEO had opened the meeting by soliciting input from the regional sales managers about the competitive landscape. While most of them avoided the question directly, and instead crooned unabashedly about their accomplishments over the past year, Charles had decided that he would answer the question straightforwardly and honestly.
When his turn came, Charles cleared his throat and said, “Look, it’s as bad as I’ve ever seen. Our main competitor’s product quality is better and they have a more robust offering. To make matters worse, their Blue Thingumajig, a new item they just recently introduced, is selling like crazy. We need to offer a Thingumajig because it’s what the consumers are buying.”
The CEO glared at him. Charles knew, she wasn’t pleased. “We make the very best product in the world. I’ll put our product side by side against any similar product and we’ll come out on top. As for this new item they have, it’s nothing more than a flash in the pan. We’re not going to follow fads.”
“It’s not a fad,” Charles said. “Really, it’s not. When I’ve been in the stores and asked customers what type of product they’d most like to see in the category, most of them described a product similar to the Blue Thingumajig. It’s the way the category is trending. I think we need it.”
“We’ve done a few internal focus groups with our own employees and no one requested this new type of item. In fact, all of them thought our product lines were perfect,” she explained.
Charles could sense anger in her voice and he knew that he was pushing the edge. Despite that he countered, “They’re our own employees. With all due respect, what would you expect them to say?” Charles could sense that his last comment created an uncomfortable atmosphere in the room.
The CEO smiled at Charles and said, “We’re happy with our product line. So, this issue about the Blue Thingumajig is closed. But I appreciate your input,” she acknowledged, and turned to the rest of the room. “I’m glad Charles brought up this new product discussion because I’m happy to announce that we’re going to introduce a new product by the end of the year. For the next ten or eleven months, we will be developing that product. But what’s so exciting about this is that we’ve contracted with XYZ Money Eaters, an outside organization that specializes in new product development, to develop this product from concept to rollout.”
Albert, one of Charles’s colleagues interrupted, “That’s great news. I’ve heard XYZ does a wonderful job. I’m excited.”
“All of us should be excited,” the CEO added and then momentarily stared at Charles. “This is going to be great for our company and will assure that we are responding to the needs of our customers and our consumers.”
Charles listened calmly to the CEO’s spiel and decided this wasn’t a battle worth fighting. He had known the CEO for many years and they had a good friendship. Arguing the point could damage their relationship. He smiled at the CEO and nodded in agreement.
For the remainder of the year Charles continued to sell the existing product line, amid complaints from his customers about its poor performance. Charles witnessed the company’s market share dramatically erode in his territory. He reported the results, but kept any commentary to himself.
Charles heard the rumors that his company had spent in excess of 1.5 million dollars to XYZ Money Eaters toward the new product initiative. They were actually doing some kind of work toward development, because periodically throughout the year, the sales team would have to fly to XYZ’s headquarters in Denver to participate in interviews, focus groups and brainstorming sessions. However, in Charles’s view, he didn’t see any tangible product coming out of the meetings and decided that XYZ was simply billing as many hours as possible.
In December, much to Charles’s surprise he got a memo that announced a kick-off meeting for the new item that XYZ Money Eaters had developed. The meeting was held at a posh hotel. All the regional sales managers, along with the executive management team, flew in for the meeting.
On the morning of the kick off meeting, Charles walk into the hotel’s banquet room and was greeted by blaring music from a live DJ. There were balloons, decorations and all sorts of fanfare. It was an amazing extravaganza. The CEO was walking around the room greeting guests, visitors, employees and members of the board.
In the middle of the room, sitting conspicuously on a decorated pedestal, was a white box. Charles assumed that underneath the box was XYZ Money Eaters new item suggestion.
It wasn’t long before everyone was asked to take their seats. The moment had arrived. The kickoff meeting began with an ostentatious parade of speakers. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the announcement was made. The MC cued a drum roll, then music. Everyone stood on their feet cheering as the lead developer from the XYZ Money Eaters agency screamed, “We are pleased to bring to you a product that we hope will become the greatest that this company will have ever produced. One that we are confident will change the direction of the organization and reposition it as an innovative leader in the industry. Please lift the box.”
With those words a representative from XYZ walked over to the pedestal and lifted the nondescript white box. Beneath it, was the company’s new product.
When Charles saw it, his jaw dropped. He sighed and shook his head incredulously, almost wanting to walk out of the meeting. The new product the XYZ Money Eaters organization had delivered was nothing more than a superfluous iteration of the Blue Thingumajig.
Charles looked over at the executive management team’s table. They were all on their feet cheering as though they had just witnessed the greatest product they’d ever seen. Charles finally relented to his internal urgings, and left the room to get some air.
Thingumajig – A Johnny-Come-Lately
When the product was introduced, the customer base reacted with skepticism because they viewed it as nothing more than a Johnny-come-lately “me too” addition to an already overcrowded category. Since they were such a late entry, the product failed to catch on. Because of the new product’s lack of sales – and the fact that the company’s coffers were now 1.5 million dollars lighter – two months after its introduction, two-thirds of the sales team were laid off. Charles was one of those employees who was let go.
Months later, over a cold beer with a colleague, Charles, when recalling his former employer’s failure, lamented “Imagine, if they had only listened to their sales team.”