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The business of solving problems, not making things better

Posted by Liam Curley on 28 December 2018

A few years ago, Gyproc Tools released two new products under a new brand called BladeRunner. One was the BladeRunner Cutter and the other was the BladeRunner Rasp. The Cutter was designed to cut plasterboard, the Rasp was designed to shave its edges. One of the products was a big commercial hit, the other wasn’t.

From a marketing perspective, what was the difference between the two?

One was created and marketed to solve a problem. The other was created and marketed as an enhancement of an existing product to ‘make things better’.

There is a constant focus, driven by the Government, to improve health and safety on site. Large construction contractors and developers are regularly under pressure from stakeholders and regulators to demonstrate proactivity in the pursuit of a safe site. Most tradesmen use an open blade (a utility or ‘Stanley’ knife) to cut plasterboard. As part of this health and safety drive, contractors are tasked with reducing the use of open blades on site.

The BladeRunner Cutter was a new tool designed to cut plasterboard quickly and without an open blade, therefore solving a big problem that large contractors, and therefore subcontractors, had. The question asked wasn’t ‘how much?’ but instead ‘how does it work?’ Because, “I have a health and safety problem, and if this helps solve that, I want one.”

At the same time, the BladeRunner Rasp was designed as an improvement on the best-selling Stanley Surform, a rasp designed to shave the edges of a plasterboard. The Surform only worked when moving the tool in one direction. The BladeRunner rasp was designed to move in both backward and forward motions and in theory, it would do the job in half the time.

But, the user could already shave a plasterboard with a rasp. This was a tool that didn’t solve a problem, it made things better. The question then was, “how much? If it doesn’t cost less than what I already have and trust, I don’t want one.”

As a subcontractor, when you’re tendering for a project or new client, you have a choice. You can merely price to specification, price to make things better, or price to solve a problem.

When you price to meet a specification, the chances are that you’re pricing against a competitor. If the prospective client has put together a BoQ, they’ve done so for several reasons, one of which being to have every subcontractor price for exactly the same scope so that they can pick the cheapest.

In this scenario, you’re considered equal to all other subcontractors, with the only differentiator being price. So, if you merely send your price back for the lines they’ve requested, the cheapest wins.

Another alternative is to recommend an improved or alternative specification and submit a price for this as well as that specified. In the past, I’ve identified systems within the specification provided that I know to be inferior to alternatives in the market with regards performance, or that I know have a higher risk than I can accept with regards system failures. I submit a price for an alternative system, which is more expensive, but essentially it ‘makes things better’. The problem is, the person making the decision, commonly in our case the Quantity Surveyor, is not interested or tasked with making things better. Their job is to make things cheaper. So, if ‘making things better’ isn’t cheaper than what they’ve asked for, you will not win the project.

In B2B, the only time price isn’t the primary concern is when you solve a problem, or to be more specific, a problem that the person you’re dealing with (the decision maker) is directly responsible for.

For example, a problem may be that a current design is not meeting BREEAM requirements. If you can address that problem and you’re the only solution that can bring the score up to the required level, the focus will move away from price. Yes, the customer may try to negotiate on price, but you’re in a strong position to hold firm.

Equally, if a contractor has a problem with finding specialist metal workers to work on small sites in Central London, or they need someone for a new variation that has just fallen on their lap, they have a problem that they need to solve now. The question isn’t ‘how much?’, it’s ‘can you do it and when can you start?’

When we talk about solving a problem, it’s critical to emphasise, the problem needs to be viewed as such in the eyes of the market, not solely in your eyes. If the person you’re selling to doesn’t see the problem that you’re addressing as their problem, you won’t sell the product unless you’re cheaper than the alternative.

What’s the lesson here?

The lesson is, if you don’t want to be a commodity subcontractor that wins work by being the cheapest, you need to understand what problem you solve that nobody else solves. What problems do clients have in your area, related to your trade, that are difficult to solve? If you create a business to address these problems, you’ve got a good shot at creating a firm with strong margins and a unique place and brand within your market where you’re not constantly battling to be the cheapest.

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