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  • John Chambers, PhD

Rapidly in blues

En route to a Storage Array Networking (SAN) supplier, whose offerings were under consideration for our in-house data center transformation, I had just completed a four-hour flight. My thoughts were accompanied by the quintessential, American classical jazz masterpiece that was played throughout the United Airlines airport terminal.

Rhapsody in Blue just never gets old. Can you believe it’s been almost 30 years since that musical campaign began for the Friendly Skies?! It’s not only the magnificent melodic imagery, nor the Ferde Grofé orchestration (marvelous as it was), the piece is simply beautiful, exciting, thoughtful and cohesive while wending a journey throughout its different themes. It is fluid but structured, through ingenious chord progressions and segues.

Gershwin was unassailable, I used to think. I met a music professor, piano master, who loved his music but had a critique of the great artist. “The discoveries inside the genius’ composition are virtually infinite. There’s something fascinating and new, the more I study it”, he said. But then he paused. And he mentioned something that startled me about George’s piano playing, etched in piano roles that mimicked his tempo and virtuosity, along with some ancient, scratchy vinyl from decades ago.

“His performance is almost unfortunate. He played too fast.”

I was stunned.

His playing was unfortunate? While the six-billion of us on this planet have every right to critique, no matter what historical name is referenced, I was unkind in my immediate thought: what’s with him? Perhaps this piano pedagogue wished he had the dexterity and finger athleticism that the cigar-smoking Brooklynite had.

But I was wrong, passing judgement before he finished.

“There was such magnificent music in his compositions,” he continued, “but he sped over the passages and progressions at such velocity, much of the beauty was lost in the performance. There is so much he’s trying to tell us! But the chords and notes fly past us in a moment. Well, thankfully we can listen again, and study it.”

The application of his words came back to me a few minutes later, after I was bludgeoned with the SAN provider’s value pitch. Accompanied by her PowerPoint deck of 48 slides, she was spraying faster than the Rhapsody’s opening glissando. I thought of that piano professor. “Too fast…. beauty lost in the performance.”

I bet this is the first time you’re reading that your sales pitches and firm value have potential “beauty.” But hey, eyes of the beholder and all that.

The content, which the SAN subject matter expert shared, was interesting but unfocused. And her delivery made prestissimo tempo seem like largo. She flew. Her preso moved from one theme to another without segue or logic. It lost its structure. Cohesiveness was abandoned. I empathized with her plight because she was asked, unannounced and last minute, to join the meeting and “sell” her knowledge of the company’s storage offering, and thereby sell us her “company’s value,” But there was no preparation. It was unfair to her, as she did not know the audience or why we, a couple of executives, consultants and technology principals, were there. We were not there to be impressed with lunch and the lordly surroundings of their “Executive Center.” Worse, her value propositions were scattered and blurred, at sonic boom velocity, without giving us a chance to realize our own firm's benefit.

If senior managers or executives are sitting for a technology company’s tour-de-force, we are expecting true alignment to our business needs. We didn’t want to spend another 35 minutes hearing about IOPS, hardware scaling capacity and embedded failover techniques. This was not a product bakeoff, not a drag race. We had read the glossy cheat sheets and product specifications, all slick and compelling, couched in benchmarking data that showed evidence of the supplier’s leadership.

What we sought was reason for a “partnership,” a supplier that would potentially advance our capabilities and our competitive objectives. We sought evidence and knowledge of seamless migrations, should we decide to select their SAN. We wanted stories of their clients, how they minimized any downtime or problems, while moving from a fatigued, legacy environment to their cutting-edge technology. We waited for customer success stories that didn’t speak of data transfer rates but rather customer fulfillment wins, because of the storage speed.

They were open to introducing us to some of their clients, which was appreciated, but when the presenter flipped to a slide discussing their customer footprint, it was a hodgepodge of color and graphics, overflowing with text, animated imagery, asterisks, exclamation points, charts, and photographs that had little semblance to the day’s topic. It was everything and anything. I thought I was looking at a mid-20th century Picasso abstraction. Now give me a moment. If I can pause more than 7 seconds I may understand the point. But instead, the crude, animated wipe, triggered by her laser pointer, dumped the next picture onto my lap -- a data center full of their SANs. Huh?

Slow down.

Think of the music you want to play. We were attending a showcasing meeting, a wow meeting that would not just emphasize the supplier’s leadership position but prove that they understood us. I expected partnering, not peddling. As the audience leaves your meeting, what is it you want them to remember? Were there bits of genius interspersed in your value discussion? Were there compelling moments that really resonated with the audience, so that your value offering was directly connecting with the audience’s expectation and need? Did it hold together? Were you playing the right piece for the right audience? Did they come to hear George Gershwin or George Harrison? Did you pause?

For the SAN provider, if the performance of the solution was faster than a competitor’s, then what does that mean to me? The executives in the meeting know that throughput, in one process step, has downstream advantages for delivery, culminating in speed to market. But there is something deeper here, and that’s what we anxiously needed. So, your information access is faster than most? Okay, that’s impressive but... how is that helping your clients?! Can you provide me one scenario that ties Information Technology to the business – more importantly -- to the customer?

Nobody said it was easy.

Notwithstanding the many thrilling moments in Gershwin’s piano playing, that teacher struck his own chord of insight. In the hundreds of pieces he wrote, the genius’ mind was bursting to tell his musical story, thoughts and sounds that echoed in his head and needed spilling out. But at times, his piano speed overwhelmed his sounds.

My meeting with that professor offered me the value of the musical rest – the value of simplicity in a presentation, and the strength of sales pitches that strike chords without fireworks of text, data and clipart interspersions.

Slow down, and tell me how this helps me and my customers.

A colleague asked me how I can reconcile this opinion to a consultancy that sells the value of quickness and immediate gains. Well, there is a difference between seeing a sapphire glisten alone and getting lost running in a mall of jewelry. In business conversations, your sales team, which includes product managers and computer scientists, must stay on message, guaranteeing pinpoint accuracy that resonates with the buyer’s need. It need not be light speed. Better yet, it should not be light speed.

After all, even with that SAN, we were not looking to buy a piece of hardware; we were seeking a trustworthy steward of immediately accessible and secured information.

For Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin was quoted that his imagination created "a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America." And perhaps this is the greatest value in his presentation. Among a myriad of thematic expressions, styles and tempos, there is still a whole, a center. When we have heard the 16 minutes, there is still cohesion. It fits together. Your presentation need not be rigid. Rhapsodic, free-flowing discussion is one thing. But a flashing, flittering PowerPoint bludgeon to the eyes and mind is another.

Recalling that chance meeting with the university music professor, you can slow down and share the music.

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