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In the eighties there was a company called Sperry Univac, they were part of the once famous Sperry Corporation.

At that time a large manufacturing concern in the industrialised Midlands of England were looking to automate and computerise operations. This meant that they would be in the market for some serious heavy iron – to use the old euphemism for mainframe computers.

So they went to tender. Of course IBM and Britain’s own ICL were at the top of the list, followed by ‘the BUNCH’ – Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data and Honeywell.

IBM had some kit at the site, things like punch-card machines and smaller systems for counting and accounting, so they were considered to be well in the running for what would be a massive contract.

Even the boss of the manufacturing company loved IBM, especially the name, but also funnily enough the blue paint-job of their computers – the formal and conservative ‘big business blue’ of IBM.

Moreover, every time the boss talked with the IBM Sales Executives, he used the terms ‘computer’ and ‘IBM’, interchangeably, and more often than not he would refer to computers as IBMs. It was his generic term for computer, and the IBM execs just loved it and with this they knew they were on to a winner.

The day of decision came and went, and over the following months the computers were shipped, installed and tested.

A few months later a sales executive from another one of the bidding computer manufacturers made a courtesy call. They were always considered outsiders for this deal, but as we know even now, it’s always good to maintain business connections, so he did.

The Sales Exec was friendly with the IT Computer Ops Manager, and got to take a glimpse of the new computer room, albeit through the safety glass of an intermediate ‘clean’ observation deck.

Wall to wall, big blue everywhere. His intuitive thought was “Normal, IBM, again”.

As luck would have it, the sales exec encountered the boss of the company on his impromptu tour of the new facility.

“Hi there, Joe. What brings you here?”

They had a brief chat.

“I could have guessed that you’d go IBM” said the exec.

“It was always my intention” replied the boss.

“I bet the IBM execs were over the moon” replied the exec.

The measured response was “Well not exactly”.

“Why’s that, Bob?”

Back came the reply. “Well, Joe. You see, we eventually decided to buy our IBM from Sperry Univac”.

The sales exec was flabbergasted, not to say intrigued.

“But, how come I didn’t see any Sperry kit in your computer room?”

“Ah!” replied the boss “as part of the deal we asked the good people at Sperry to paint all the cabinets blue. IBM blue. So they did”.

“Buying our IBM from Sperry has been one of the best things we have done in years”.

A few years later I asked one of Sperry’s senior sales executives about what he thought had gone wrong in the approach of IBM and what had gone right in Sperry’s strategy.

He explained it this way.

The IBM execs were so pleased that the company boss referred to computer’s as IBMs that they were lulled into a false sense of confidence and certainty.

The Sperry sales execs on the other hand had been repeatedly cajoled into adopting the habit of actively listening. When they heard ‘IBM’ they understood ‘computer’, because they went past the trivial.

They grasped the concepts and the intent, and were not suckered by the superficial and irrelevant.

That is, until it came to the colour of the boxes. And they easily accommodated that as well.

Thanks for reading.

As always, please share your questions, views and criticisms on this piece using the comment box below. I frequently write about strategy, organisational, leadership and information technology topics, trends and tendencies. You are more than welcome to keep up with my posts by clicking the ‘Follow’ link and perhaps even send me a LinkedIn invite. Also feel free to connect via Twitter, Facebook and the Cambriano Energy website.

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