11436 SSO

The Power of Self-Service

How APIs reduce sales friction
Gregory Brail
Sep 29, 2015

Imagine two companies. Both sell a complex and expensive service to complex and well-funded customers. Imagine that they sell very expensive, yet largely mass-produced, widgets like “virtual private networks,” or “security as a service.”

The first company is the kind of company that those large and well-funded customers are used to purchasing from. The company web site features stock photographs of handsome models interacting with white boards and laptops, complete with platitudes about how the company’s products enable the latest buzzwords. A few clicks down into the “products” section of the web site reveals downloadable PDFs that list the functionality of the company’s various products in a few high-level sentences. For the rest, the reader is encouraged to email “sales.”

The second company also has those same handsome models. But right at the top of the web site, it says, “APIs.” A few mouse clicks lead to detailed descriptions of every service that the company offers, in the form of comprehensive API documentation—documentation that not only tells how to technically call the API, but the semantics and price of each API call.

The API section, furthermore, is more than just documentation. Right there up top is a button that says, “try it.” A developer who understands APIs (and there are few that don’t these days) can click the button and immediately get to work using the API, perhaps even for free. Furthermore, the presence of a complete API means that there is a ready-made ecosystem of integrators, developers, and tools available for working with the service, all discoverable before enduring a single visit from a sales rep.

The Amazon model

Depending on one’s line of business, perhaps one or the other of these alternatives makes more sense. But instead of some made-up business, imagine that the second company is called “Amazon Web Services.” And if that doesn’t convince you, let’s look at AWS revenue for the last five years:


AWS revenue vs. estimates. Source: CIO.com

Does this seem far-fetched? Consider that, in addition to hosting servers, AWS offers a set of services that, once upon a time, were only available from telcos and other large, proprietary vendors. It might seem a bit overdone today, but consider the process of setting up a scalable, reliable, “web-scale” commerce solution in the late 1990s:

  • Negotiate with Sun Microsystems sales reps to purchase hardware
  • Negotiate with Exodus sales reps to purchase data center rack space and power
  • Negotiate with WebLogic sales reps for app server licenses
  • Negotiate with Oracle sales reps for database licenses
  • Negotiate with Akamai sales reps for content delivery network services
  • Negotiate with Verizon sales reps to connect new data center to internal corporate network

Consider the process today:

  • Sign up for Amazon with a credit card
  • Provision servers via API
  • Host application code via API
  • Create hosted database instances via API
  • Put content on a CDN via API
  • Connect multiple networks to your corporate VPN via an API

Of course, some of this is due to changing technology and the rise of open source, but not all of it—a lot has to do with the power of Amazon’s purely self-service model.

The power of reducing sales friction

Now, none of this means that the traditional enterprise sales model is dead. AWS has sales reps, SEs, professional services, negotiated discounts, and a conference in Las Vegas that it brings its best customers to for free.

The big difference is in the amount of friction that it takes Amazon to get there. By the time the AWS enterprise team starts to meet with a big customer, that customer is already betting their business on AWS.

This lack of friction in business is not some “nice to have.” For today’s IT worker, it is the expected way of doing business. The old way—“email sales@bigcorp.com”—is no longer the norm in today’s IT marketplace—it’s the exception.

Outside the world of IT services, this sort of thing mainly hasn’t happened yet. But the technology makes it possible to use the self-service model to create businesses that delight customers more quickly and more cheaply. It may not have happened in every business yet, but it will.

Photo: FrankieLeon/Flickr


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