Know your customer's unspoken needs
By Mike Salameh, photo by David Toerge - April 1, 2002
"Listen to what they want—deliver what they need," a successful real estate broker friend replied when I asked her how she had made it in her competitive business. The same holds true for the electronics industry, particularly in our field, which is providing interconnect silicon to the communications infrastructure.
Early in her career, the broker suffered missed opportunities, dissatisfied customers and countless wasted hours showing house-hunters only what they said they wanted, such as a house with a valley view or a wooded lot. Eventually she discovered how to deliver not only the well-articulated wants, but the unexpressed needs: acceptable financing, convenient access to schools and shopping, etc. The result of this discovery was quicker sales, repeat customers and the ability to make a good living selling real estate.
In the electronic components business, the ambiguity of wants and needs is compounded because the customer typically is a large corporation with shifting and sometimes conflicting priorities. The key to success is to deliver the stated requirements, while anticipating the unspoken needs.
Three clear requirements of communications equipment today are speed, scalability and high availability of data. For builders of switches, routers, base stations, gateways, access multiplexers and many other types of communications equipment, these are imperatives to winning in their markets. Many of them use the PCI bus as their system interconnect and now require a way to expand the capabilities of their system architectures. As their vendor, we are asked to deliver the silicon that delivers on those requirements.
Customers' subtle needs are every bit as significant as are their obvious demands for speed, scalability and performance
The demand speed in the communications infrastructure has grown almost a thousand-fold in a decade, from 10-megabit Ethernet and T-1 in the early 1990s to 10-gigabit Ethernet and OC-768 today. Along with higher speed, communications-equipment buyers require improved scalability, meaning the ability to expand the number of communication ports equipment seamlessly by adding line cards or stacking boxes, preferably without shutting the equipment down. On top of that comes "five nines" availability, a degree of fault tolerance which demands that the system keep working. Period.
Because we provide silicon capable of that, success should be guaranteed, right? Not so fast! The history of technology is littered with fancy innovations that fell flat. In the early '90s, anticipating the emphasis on speed, scalability and high availability, many silicon vendors developed fiber-distributed data interface (FDDI) technology and components as a revolutionary improvement to the ubiquitous Ethernet. FDDI fizzled as a mainstream technology because, although it delivered the wants, it missed on the unstated needs of communications-equipment makers; they balked at FDDI's lack of compatibility with the installed base of Ethernet hardware and software, not to mention the high cost of FDDI relative to Ethernet. In the end, the lower-performance and less-elegant switched Ethernet technology and its 100 megabits per second won out because it met the compatibility and cost needs.
This scenario illustrates that customers' subtle needs are every bit as significant as are their obvious demands for speed, scalability and performance, and that while fascinated by the revolutionary, they buy evolutionary. Customers also need help in the time-to-market department, which, while perhaps not stated, certainly is implied by the nature of their industry. As a vendor who once struggled with this concept, we began to allocate a substantial portion of engineering, marketing and sales budget to time-to-market support.
These common characteristics of the ultra-high-tech communications infrastructure and the decidedly low-tech real estate field tell us this: To be successful we must deliver the obvious requirements along with a healthy measure of the subtle needs—whether or not customers are aware of them.
Mike Salameh is founder and president of PLX Technology Inc. Contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.