It’s time to consider “services” to be “products,” at least where meetings and conferences are concerned.

Wikipedia says “IBM treats its business as a service business. Although it still manufactures computers, it sees the physical goods as a small part of the “business solutions” industry. They have found that the price of demand for “business solutions” is much lower than for hardware. There has been a corresponding shift to a subscription pricing model. Rather than receiving a single payment for a piece of manufactured equipment, many manufacturers are now receiving a steady stream of revenue for ongoing contracts.”  The change is significant.

Increasingly, then, we live in a service economy. Even large companies—such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM—make the bulk of their money on services, not on the software and hardware products that they sell.  Regardless, they are referred to as “vendors” because they do, in fact, sell products—even though most of their profits are made selling services.

But the old models are dying hard in the meetings business.

Conference season is here again; the calls for papers are out. Yet in our little industry, you are classed as a vendor” if you have any products to sell and “other” if you do not—even if you are selling “services.”

So, “services” are not “products,” at least in the taxonomy of the conference/meeting industry.

This false dichotomy is illogical and unfair.

Those that make their living selling their “services” (consulting, for example) to conference audiences get a free pass until they have a “product,” at which point they become a “vendor.” “Consultants” can hawk their paid expertise (“services”) from the podium, but it costs vendors to even whisper the name of their products. Even someone who has a lot of experience, has spent time deeply thinking about what it takes to make something into a product that actually works, and has been awarded patents for their thinking underscoring that the ideas are unique and innovative, is still classified as a dreaded “vendor” that cannot be trusted to avoid giving a sales pitch from the podium.

But since “services” aren’t “products,” consultants can give all the sales pitches they like.

If a consultant spends half her talk presenting a “case study” of a project she did, that seems to be okay, when in fact it is a huge sales job to the audience. These same consultants are never held responsible for the messes they make (we have cleaned up quite a few of them), but they continue to move around the speaker circuit with impunity. Patrick Lambe mentioned in his closing talk at the 2012 Taxonomy Boot Camp that consultants should be held accountable and liable for bad advice, which often leaves customers with a “once bitten, twice shy” situation. I believe he is right!  The customers have lost a lot of time, money, and possibly position in the marketplace because they tried going the direction a consultant recommended to them. Many of these consultants have either run through a lot of jobs—not keeping any of them long—or have not actually completed and instituted the types of projects they consult on. They don’t know the pitfalls and how to make something that works.  A vendor has the scars of implementation to show from previous projects completed, perhaps even a working product you can purchase.

Meeting organizers see vendors as targets, but those selling consulting and other services are exempt.  If you have a product—software, for example—they will let you “buy” your way on to the program by being a sponsor of the meeting. This means for a certain dollar amount you can have a 20-minute spot, and for a bunch of dollars more you can get a keynote address. Take a look at the sponsorship button or exhibitor button on any meeting or conference website and you will see what I mean.

But since those selling services are, illogically, not considered “vendors” they don’t have to “sponsor” (read: pay a fee) to be considered for giving a talk.

Who would you rather hear from?

1) Someone who has implemented a project like the one you are planning, such as a case study from a potential colleague?

2) A company who has implemented many projects and knows the variation and challenges in getting something to work?

3) A consultant who advises on projects and reads the literature with no accountability?

4) A professor who researches and writes in the area you are trying to implement?

Many conferences and meetings are becoming watered down by competing needs: of the organizers need more cash and the attendees need more information. There is a proliferation of such meetings, but I am seeing significantly smaller exhibit halls and attendance at many of them.

The meetings that are growing in popularity and attendance, however, are users’ group meetings. These are clearly based around a particular product—people attending are interested in the product and how the other attendees are using it.  Some of these are like rock concerts with big sound and stage productions; they may also include elaborate parties. Others are nuts-and-bolts presentations—how-to-use training sessions along with case studies and plenty of time for users to interact with each other, the potential users, and company staff.

Which meeting would you rather attend? One where the organizers 1) send out a call for papers and review them based on merit of the paper? 2) solicit sponsors and build the program based on who will pay them for a slot on the program? 3) bring together people who use a like product so they can learn about the actual implementations and lessons learned in a collegial environment?

It’s time to reconsider the old model. “Services” should be considered “products.”  We need to do away with the irrational and false distinction between types of “vendors.”

The Data Harmony Users Group meeting will be held February 18–20.  It is full of case studies, training opportunities and lots of time to interact with those of like minds.  Find out more.