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Failure - a vital element in go-to-market success

"I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." ~ Michael Jordan

We all hate to fail right? Failure is a bad thing to be avoided at all costs. Sometimes it’s better to pretend to be succeeding rather than admit to having failed.

This is particularly true when it comes to communication with our channels. Admitting to our sales people or our partners that our products aren’t the greatest, or that our marketing campaigns might not be the most compelling ever conceived, is a sign of weakness. They might lose faith in our omnipotence, their unquestioning loyalty to us might be shaken. As if!!

This tendency to always be in positive-spinning, tub-thumping, evangelising mode when we’re communicating to salespeople and partners can be hugely counter-productive, and not only because it eventually leads to a complete loss of credibility. Failures can be good and highly valuable in certain contexts. And unless we’re ready to accept and acknowledge them we only store up bigger failures for the future.

OK, if you’re running a manufacturing plant producing medical equipment you want to drive out any possibility of error, but if you’re in the business of taking an innovative, new product to market (and most technology firms fall into that category, if not what are they doing here?) then failure needs to be recognised as an inevitable part of the process.

The important thing is not whether you fail, but how early you do it, how big you do it, and how quickly you absorb the lessons and make adjustments as a result. Successful product design firm IDEO have a great slogan, ‘fail often in order to succeed sooner’. Successful companies have lots of small failures, recognise them early and make quick modifications to their approach. Unsuccessful companies don’t admit to failures until it’s too late, and the failure becomes big enough to take the company down. 

So how does this relate to the channel? Well given that our main interaction with customers happens via our sales channels, then those channels have a critical role to play in our failure detection system. They’re probably better placed to spot the early signs of failure than we are. But for those signs to be acted upon we have to be encouraging their feedback and we need to be listening (not just via a once-a-year partner sat survey). To achieve this requires the right tools (online forums, regular surveys, partner councils etc all have a role to play), but it also requires the right culture and mind-set.

The important thing isn’t so much whether you ask the right question, it’s whether you genuinely listen to the answer and take on board the feedback, as opposed to sitting there working out how you’re going to ‘overcome the objection’ and persuade the doubter that they’ve actually got it wrong.

If we are too busy trying to convince them how great we are all the time it’s unlikely we’re going to hear them when they tell us that actually our wonderful, shiny new product isn’t going down too great out there and maybe needs a bit of tweaking. The end result is that our good salespeople and partners will soon vote with their feet and we’ll be left with a big, expensive failure rather than a small, valuable one.

If we are brave enough to have a genuinely open, honest, two-way dialogue with our sales channels, which acknowledges the likelihood of failure, then not only will we build a more successful business, we’re also, perversely, likely to end up with greater respect and commitment from those channels as a result.