Service companies definitely understand business problems better than product companies. Case in point: I've been talking a lot lately to both kinds of companies about innovation. When you ask vendors the question, "How do you approach the innovation process?" service companies, on average, say something about business problems first. Product companies, on average, talk about technology.

By no small coincidence, many product companies are now trying to figure out the kind of solutions in which they might play a role. That question has two sides:

  1. How do we fit into solutions where we already play a part? If we were to learn how customers really use our technology, we might have an easier time marketing and selling it to them. We might make better investments in our product roadmap, or in our larger portfolio.
  2. How might we fit into other solutions where we could play a part? The path of least resistance for market development is finding new business problems to address in our existing accounts. But do these opportunities really exist?

While "technology in search of a problem" might sound silly, that's exactly the challenge that product companies face. They might genuinely want to understand customers better, but they're starting from a greater distance from the actual use of technology than service companies.

Happily, within product companies, there are shortcuts to understanding the customer better, and learning how to think about solutions first and technology second. In product companies, there are employees who deal with customers on a daily basis. They see how technology snaps into place as part of a larger solution architecture.

Many heads of PM teams have told me that sales engineers often make very good new product managers. They've been close to both the customer's use cases and the vendor's technology. They've learned how to speak the customer's language, and they've met the business and IT stakeholders who play critical roles in projects.

Therefore, if you want to hire someone who can help innovation start with customer problems, SEs are good candidates. Unlike support technicians, they participate in both the successes and failures. Unlike consultants, they have greater participation in the phases when the customer is struggling to figure out how the technology will be part of the solution. They have the technical bona fides to deal with the development team directly.

SEs also have a good sense of the features and capabilities that are essential to delivering value to the customer. Many good SEs can help filter enhancement requests better than someone who has not had as much direct experience with customers. For any tech vendor who wants the biggest bang for the smallest development buck, that's a pretty valuable skill.

[Cross-posted at The Heretech.]