A Man Buys A Drill… Why?

This is one of the first lessons I was taught as a young, ambitious and slightly arrogant business development professional. But as it turns out, probably the most important too.

The impact was immediate and profound. It transformed the way I think.

This is a lesson that has remained ever-relevant throughout my career and in fact, if anything, has actually gotten even more relevant as the impact of the 4IR (4th Industrial Revolution) really kicks in.

Understand your customer’s ecosystem and you will understand their motivations and from there, how to influence their decision-making.

Back in 1996, I’d just made the transition from ‘electronics geek’ to a customer-facing role with a global Japanese electronics giant. A role which, just to be clear, had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with selling drills!

Out-with the obvious cultural, geographic and lifestyle changes I was dealing with, developing my consultative sales skills was top of the agenda. In that regard, my employers were fantastic. They paid for the very best.

In a pre-Google/YouTube/Wikipedia/LinkedIn/Facebook/Twitter world, if you wanted to learn something new or ask an expert, you had to be there, in person, in the classroom. I was in Jeff Thull’s classroom that day and he told this story:

“A chap walked into a DIY store and asked for directions to the power tools. In an aisle festooned with electric drills, he was stood pondering the plethora of options when the sales assistant approached and asked if he needed help.

“I need a drill”, he said

“What sort of drill?” asked the assistant

“I’ve no idea, I was hoping you could tell me!”

“Why do you need a drill?”

“Well, I have some bookshelves I want to put up”

“OK, let me talk you through your options…”

For the next 20 minutes, the sales assistant explained, with great expertise, all the features, options, accessories, prices and of course, warranties that were available to choose from.

“Thanks” said the chap “I need to have a think about it” and off he wandered, slightly bemused.

An hour later, the sales assistant saw the same chap heading to the car park with a trolley piled high with goods.

“Did you get your drill?” he asked

“No, it turns out I don’t need one” came the reply

“Why not? I thought you wanted to put up some shelves?”

“I bought a bookcase instead. And all this other stuff too, for my new flat but thanks for your help anyway”

At the end of the story, Geoff asked us what we thought the point of it was. After a few moments of silence, he said

“A man buys a drill, not because he wants to own a drill but because he wants to make holes”

The penny dropped immediately.

Jeff continued

“This is the basis of consultative selling. Understand your customer’s ecosystem and you will understand their motivations and from there, how to influence their decision-making.”

“Your competition is not others selling drills but those that can offer a more effective way to make holes. Their competition is not those offering other ways to make holes but those who have a solution that doesn’t require holes.”

So why am I sharing this today?

Because over the last 20-odd years, the impact of this principle has been playing out all around us, shaping our lives every day.

Technology is at the heart of enabling this change but the underlying principle is still the same:

Why would I buy a drill if I no longer need to make holes?

Think about it:

I don’t buy CD’s but I listen to music (Spotify/Deezer)

I don’t rent DVD’s but I watch films (Netflix/Prime)

I don’t own books but I read lots of stories (Kindle)

I don’t wait for taxis, I get chauffeured (Uber)

I don’t spend hours at the shops but I buy lots of stuff (Amazon)

I don’t know everything but I have all the answers (Wikipedia/Google)

I never visit a travel agent but I still go on holiday (Skyscanner/Trivago/Airbnb)

In fact, this principle will lead a fundamental change in the balance of economic power over the next 20 years, as we witness the decline of consumerism and the rise of “smart solutions”.

Many of the leading brands and businesses you know today will be long gone, because they still think their customers want to buy “drills”…

I won’t cook but I’ll eat healthily (Deliveroo/Springbox)

I won’t buy a bike but I’ll cycle to work (Mobike/Nextbike/“Boris” Bikes)

I won’t buy a car but I’ll still drive (Zip Car/City Car/E-Car)

Eventually, I won’t drive because cars will be fully autonomous

Eventually, I won’t need personal transport because I’ll live in a smart city

Eventually, I won’t “own” anything because I’ll share/rent/collaborate everything…