Engine Failure on Take-off

There are a number of pitfalls to avoid when putting a new product to market, says Mike Sparks, regional sales manager at Pintsch Bubenzer USA LLC.

Working with technology and components throughout my career, I’ve seen my fair share of new products. My various employers have launched them to existing and prospective customers, many of which I’ve been responsible for selling; and I’ve been on the receiving end of sales pitches about equipment that could help us be safer and more productive. There are certain commonalities, most notably in the mistakes manufacturers and suppliers make from conceptualisation through to application of the product at the coalface.

There are only two good reasons for launching a new product: one, to enter into a new market space or generate fresh demand; and, two, to gain market share through innovation. The former will largely be related to entirely new products and the latter to enhancements or improvements to an existing tool or range.

I’ve seen companies introduce new equipment for different reasons—say, because they haven’t done so for a few years—and it rarely works. Most sectors are at saturation point in terms of competing brands and technologies so the reasons for adding another gizmo or gadget have got to be legitimate and the advantages to customers tangible.

It can be an incredibly exciting time as a salesperson to receive news that one is going to get a new product to promote as part of their portfolio, especially if business has been slow or potential clients are proving hard to convert. Not only can a new item energise a team, it makes the company appear innovative and cutting edge, which in turn adds to a feeling of positivity. I guess when a young person goes into sales, they envisage themselves showcasing shiny new products, not tools or devices that have been on the shelf for many years.

An astute salesperson will use a new product to revisit an account that might have stagnated somewhat, where the decision maker has grown tired of the previous offering. It’s also an opportunity to turn a run-of-the-mill client into a top-level customer. Perhaps they had been consuming another piece of equipment from an alternative supplier but it will make more sense moving forward to buy from a single source now the portfolio has been expanded.

Finger on the pulse

All things considered, it’s understandable why the very utterance of the word ‘new’ sets pulses racing, versus ‘old’ or ‘same’ or ‘another’. However, a new product can be a poisoned chalice. Because provider, salesperson, and customer alike are all greatly enthused by the launch, the sense of deflation when the product doesn’t live up to expectations can be disastrous. Imagine trying to sell a product to someone who had previously bought something that did not do what it said on the tin. That purchaser might have gone to great lengths to release funds for the investment and they won’t forget or forgive easily.

Much of the time, the problem with failed launches can be traced back to the source. Keep in mind the two reasons for putting a product to market that we discussed at the outset. Adhering to either requires a company structure whereby the right people are driving innovation, which should ultimately be the end users and those they liaise with directly. Engineers are the lifeblood of many businesses and I’ve been long inspired by their work, but when they become isolated, products can be designed without proper consideration of their end use. In other words, great minds operate in a bubble or vacuum, where objectives are not aligned to the application.

Collaboration is a word I use a lot in relation to successful product launches. Just like an isolated engineering team can’t devise a groundbreaking product, nor can a sales force, marketing team, or group of investors in isolation. It has to be a collective endeavour. At good companies, a steady stream of feedback and information from clients and their sales contacts is encouraged. I’d immediately be suspicious of an engineer that didn’t want to know how his or her product was performing in the field or wasn’t receptive to ways it might be improved in future. Research and development, marketing, and other professionals can then enter the process in line with a structure or protocol, which I’ll come to.

The initial stages are crucial. It’s tempting to rush towards the bolt, control, drive, beam, or whatever the product is, in its box and ready for the first shipment. But even if the market has identified a need for something and the engineers are on board, there might not be a fit for other reasons. Why has nobody else launched it? Is there really money to be made? If not, is there enough to be gained by knock-on benefits? Will its launch threaten other core products or business units? Is the technology viable? And a big consideration: what about price point?

I’ve seen products get as far as beta testing (a second phase of software analysis involving an audience sampling a product) only for them to be pulled from production, often with good reason. Again, I’ve heard about this stage being skipped in eagerness and haste—and it’s always a mistake. Whether an engineer thinks they know better or not, if an audience can’t be convinced a product is going to add value to their lives, against whatever metric they apply, they aren’t going to buy it. It’s not a box-ticking exercise either. If the customers selected for trial are not listened to, they’ll take great offence if they’re later offered a product to buy that doesn’t address their critiques.

False dawn

It’s probably true that product enhancements do not require the same level of market research, but that doesn’t mean all innovations can be monetised, nor sales taken for granted. If a product already performs beyond the requirements of an application, why would a customer invest in a newer version that has even more whistles and bells? It’s possible to leave a sour taste in an existing client’s mouth too. They might not appreciate a sales pitch for Mk II of a product six months after taking delivery of Mk I and certainly not Mk III upon the first anniversary of the first brochure arriving.

Whatever the prospective new product, a set process should exist, as I’ve said. It’s never advisable to force product development by pressurising a team to generate new ideas. I’ve heard of ‘innovation days’ and staged meetings, whereby company representatives have to brainstorm and think of new ideas. My problem with that is what happens in between? Everyone in a company should know what to do when a new concept is put to them or research presents a potential new product. It might be that they submit it to a designated person, who then analyses its potential and passes it onto a manufacturing team to conduct a study, before a manager is presented with the findings. Sound protocol will ensure efficiency; analysis is thorough but time isn’t wasted.

Even when a product has ticked all the necessary boxes and is on the shelves, a launch can still falter if personnel are not properly trained. In fact, I’d argue that a lack of education at sales force level is the primary reason new launches fail at takeoff. If a dealership or sales representatives are misinformed, the customer will have inaccurate expectations of what the standalone item or enhancement actually does. Consider that often a single person is a customer’s only point of contact at a company; if trust is abandoned, the whole business relationship breaks down. Mis-selling is a curse in business, whether it’s done as an act of skulduggery or attributable to ignorance.

Similarly, marketing has got to be accurate. It’s tempting to plaster self-serving statements on advertisements, brochures, and packaging, but if it creates a false sense in the customer’s mind, it’ll be counterproductive. As is the case with so much in life, honesty is the best policy. ‘Fastest’, ‘highest’, ‘leanest’, ‘best’, etc. are loose terms that might not actually describe what a product does. If a customer bolts a product onto their machinery hoping for it to increase speed when all it is designed to do is serve as a safety mechanism, they’ll feel mis-sold. As a result, they’ll treat the next approach with great suspicion.

As a relatively new member of staff here at Pintsch Bubenzer, it’s been fascinating to witness the successful launch of our new multidimensional app, downloadable to cell phones and other smart devices. I can’t say too much more about it yet, but suffice it to say that the speed of technological development is certainly something we all need to consider when researching and putting new products to market.

Before the countdown to your next launch begins, make sure everything has been done to ensure its safe lift-off.

Thank you to Lift & Hoist International (LHI) for your permission to publish this thought leadership article. Mike’s column “The Insider” is a regular feature in LHI.

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