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Communicating Under Pressure

One of the fastest ways a company stands out from the crowd (for better or for worse) is how they communicate with the world when facing difficult circumstances. The tone that is set during these challenging times will resonate far and wide.

It is likely that your company will experience a delicate situation at some point in the future. (Perhaps you’ve already been through one.) What’s most important is how you communicate internally — with your executive team, other company leadership, and your employees. It is this tone that will then be conveyed outside your company, so you want to be sure to do a great job communicating internally before doing anything else.

Rumors of layoffs, potential buyouts, and pending lawsuits can spread like wildfire through your organization. Those rumors are often more frightening than the situation itself. Honest, clear communication from company leadership can put a halt to speculation and ease fears that may otherwise halt productivity and focus.

Yes, at times the details are classified or confidential. But if an information leak has occurred, it is better to devise a communications strategy before the news spirals out of your control. Rumors flying around internally soon make it outside of your company walls, and the media can disseminate the information — whether it is true or not — faster than you can contain it.

After communicating what you can with your teams, relaying a unified and thoughtful message to the rest of the world becomes priority. Your investor and public relations departments will be key in crafting and then communicating your message. Press releases, media alerts, television or radio interviews, blog posts, and social media, when used properly, can all relay your message quickly and clearly.

Honesty and transparency mixed with some tact and thoughtful compassion is a great formula for setting the tone of your message.

Accessibility, willingness to communicate, and reasonable response times can halt negative reactions and criticism.

Setting expectations appropriately and then meeting those expectations keeps trust in tact. (It’s always better to under-promise and over-deliver than over-promise and under-deliver!)

When a sensitive situation arises, balance out your speed of response with the time it takes to craft a thoughtful response. A hasty reaction without considering all of the potential impacts it may have is a mistake. The phrase, “slow is steady, steady is smooth, smooth is fast” is a good one to remember here!

Above all else, remember that you’re dealing with people and their lives. The situation you’re handling will have an impact on your employees and your customers. By being willing to put the people first, ahead of the company, you’ll gain loyalty and trust.

Let me give you an example.

The popular investment show Shark Tank recently featured a small home-grown business run by a young couple. They literally ran their business out of their garage, had no employees, and made many of their products by hand. They received a rather large investment from one of the “Sharks” and the moment their episode aired on TV, they sold out of every bit of product they had in stock.

Even factoring in the show’s estimated increase in business based off of past companies’ experiences, they surpassed those estimates by over 100%. They had to scale, and quickly! The holiday season was approaching, they had tens of thousands of new customers, and they simply could not keep up with demand.

What did they do? They communicated! They communicated often. It was with honesty, integrity, and compassion. They did their very best to ramp up production, hire a team, set up multiple manufacturing and fulfillment partnerships, train an entire customer service department, and handle the overwhelming response to their product.

Were they perfect at this process? Absolutely not. Some of the promises they made still weren’t met, they still had a large amount of unhappy customers, and it took them a number of months to get on their feet. But through it all they communicated with grace. When they were all caught up, they sent out an apology email with a large discount coupon for a future purchase. I’m certain they retained most of their new customers.

No company knows exactly what is coming around the next corner. No team or individual will always make the right decision in how to communicate during a crisis. However, making wise communication a priority during the tough times will strengthen your relationship with your employees and your customers. It is absolutely essential to success.

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Communicating Effectively with YOUR Audience

In a prior blog post, I discussed the fine line between keeping your company communications professional, yet personal.  I suggested that high-quality communications are a positive representation of your company, and a personal touch can really help to draw in your audience so that they make a connection with your company.  This balance is extremely important to maintain and can make a big difference in your marketing efforts.

Today, I’d like to take this a step further and talk about how to communicate effectively with your target audience.  All too often, companies miss the mark when talking about their products and services by not realizing that their audience may not have enough background knowledge to understand their technical terminology.  Even though your engineers and scientists may be able to explain company concepts most accurately, it’s important to “translate” this information into common, everyday language.

Here are a few keys to keep in mind:

  • Acronyms can be exhausting.  Even though the employees of your company may have them down pat, you cannot expect your customers to remember all of your acronyms.  If you are going to use them, be sure to define them clearly and often.  Limit the number of different acronyms you use.  Focus on the most important ones, and build recognition by repetition.
  • Internal company lingo or made-up words are cool, but they can also be confusing!  If you’re trying to get a new word to pick up traction with your target market, be sure to introduce it in a clever way and use repetition to make the word stick.  Eventually, it will hold some value – if you position it correctly.
  • Use examples, especially ones that give your audience a mental picture of what you’re talking about.  Some people learn best by visualizing.  Photographs, diagrams, and videos do a great job of saying a lot in a short amount of time.  A picture is worth a thousand words!
  • Step outside the box.  Or rather, step outside of your company’s four walls – and into the shoes of your audience!  A marketing or sales pitch that makes perfect sense during an internal planning meeting may not make a lot of sense to a stranger on the street.  (Have you ever seen a commercial that just made absolutely no sense to you, or was so off-the-wall that it actually made you not want to buy the product or service?  That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.)  Do your research, test out your pitches on your target audience, and listen to their feedback.  It can be very valuable.
  • Ask for help.  Find someone on your team who is really good at taking technical, difficult-to-understand concepts, products, and terms, and have them help write the “everyday language” version of the information.  This person should be involved with your marketing and public relations team as well.  Then, leave it to the experts!  Your marketing team (whether internal or external) will be able to communicate your information even more clearly.  Often times it helps to have someone not associated with the company do the majority of your writing.  Because they have to first understand and grasp your concepts in order to write about them, they do a great job of putting it in a way that anyone will understand.

If you keep these tips in mind when preparing your sales and marketing communications, you will certainly notice a better response from your audience which will translate into more success for your company.  Not only do we want to keep our communications personal enough to be engaging and professional enough to garner respect, but we also want to speak appropriately and effectively to our audience.  Stay tuned for more communication tips in the future!

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Bonus Tips for Making the Most of Your Analyst Briefings

Bonus Analyst Relations TipsIn my last blog post, “The ABCs of Industry Analyst Briefings”, we looked at some of the key fundamentals for successfully briefing industry analysts.  Today I bring you bonus tips to add to the list of best practices you can adopt to ensure your company is putting its best foot forward in its analyst relations efforts.

1) Let the analyst talk. While the purpose of a vendor briefing is for companies to tell analysts about their products, savvy vendors recognize that analysts have something useful to say and deserve a listen. Too many companies plow through dozens of slides sticking tightly to their scripts and often end the call without the analyst getting one word in.  Again, the better analysts will not let this happen and will interrupt if they have questions or comments. But don’t make them do that. Good etiquette means you should pause often and ask whether the analyst has something to say. Better yet, make sure you plan to schedule time at the end of your briefing to specifically hear from the analyst, who can provide valuable insight and direction for your company. Contrary to common perception, analysts try to add value on their calls whether or not the vendor is a paying client.

2) Respect the analyst’s time. Industry analysts are among the most busy folks you’ll work with – and if they’re not, they’re probably not worth your company’s time.  In addition to tracking hundreds of vendors, they’re busy answering client inquiries, doing research, giving presentations/webinars, working on consulting projects, and writing reports.  It’s a known fact that analysts spend a lot of time on vendor briefings although they often prefer to be doing their other work. Therefore, it’s essential to schedule only the amount of time needed and abide by the schedule by starting and ending meetings on time.  Also, make sure your technology works; delays around incorrect Web conferencing logins, for example, are irritating and usually avoidable.  TIP:  resend web conferencing details about 10 minutes before the call so the information is at the top of the analyst’s e-mail box (Gartner analysts most particularly appreciate this).

3) Prepare a proper agenda and follow it. Having a proper agenda will help keep your analyst briefings on track.   When possible, this agenda should go to the analyst ahead of time for approval.  While this is not a popular practice, the agenda provides a tool for vendors and analysts to keep the briefings under control and make sure important topics are not overlooked. Too many vendors focus exclusively on their technology. It’s important to ensure that non-technology subjects like company, customers, financials, investors, management and industry backdrop are included in the briefing to ensure analysts have the proper perspective.

4) Go easy on the PowerPoint® slides. Nothing makes an analyst more frustrated than when they see that a vendor briefing presentation contains more slides than there are minutes allotted for the briefing. Too many slides leaves the analyst confused and not completely sure what is important for their takeaway. You need to make sure your presentation conveys a clear message and gets to the points you think are most important.  The best briefings supplement the presenters, not vice versa. Many analysts want to see your product in action; but of course these product demonstrations should be manageable and support the business messages you are promoting. Again, make sure that there is time for questions and discussion to hear from the analyst so you know if he/she has understood your presentation and to get valuable information they can offer.

5) Follow up with the analyst. It’s amazing that many times after a vendor expends extensive effort to find and brief an analyst, they do nothing to follow up after their initial call. Companies should continue to build the relationship by keeping analysts aware of news and asking for their opinions or ideas when appropriate. It is a fallacy that analysts will only give ideas to paying clients. While paying vendor clients do receive more involved interactions, most analysts are willing to have meaningful discussions with non-paying vendors after a briefing. Companies should strive to build memorable connections with analysts which are achieved by faithful, honest and interesting communications.

Bottom line: analysts are top influencers with your customers and among industry peers – nothing should be spared in applying correct etiquette to ensure you make the most of your valuable time with these high-powered people.

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The ABCs of Industry Analyst Briefings

ABCs of Industry Analyst RelationsBriefing technology industry analysts is a learned art rather than a formulaic science.
The main objective is to connect with the analysts so they understand your company and solution enough to describe it accurately to others. Some of these “others” include journalists and potential customers who may subscribe to an analyst service. While this objective seems quite straightforward, the desired result is often not achieved.

In this post we’ll discuss best practices for briefing industry analysts to help make sure your company connects the dots with these top influencers.

A) Get the Right Analyst While it seems obvious, analysts sometimes are pulled into briefings when they do not belong there. This can be quite embarrassing and/or irritating for all parties involved. Good analyst relations programs start by identifying a list of top candidates with proper research and adequate planning. You can learn about most analysts by looking at their biography on the analyst Web site, reading their quotes in the trade press or following their social media updates. Not doing so shows a lack of preparation.

B) Know the Analyst Firm While most people in the technology business know the profiles of the largest advisory firms, it’s important to be well versed on smaller firms you decide to target. Every firm is different: Many only do work for vendors while others sell research reports. While some focus on quantitative research, others only do qualitative analysis, and some do both. It’s important to learn about these nuances to ensure your analyst briefings reflect knowledge of the firm you are briefing and to best leverage the unique benefits of each opportunity.

C) Prepare the Analyst Do not assume any analyst knows about your company or product. A briefing always goes better when the analyst has time before the discussion to learn about your company. This gives the analyst a chance to think through what you do and is better prepared to ask relevant questions. Vendors or their PR agencies need to provide information to analysts ahead of time including links to recent press releases of significance. They should also provide the analyst with names and titles of people that will be participating in the briefing. If the analyst is not prepared with this basic info, the briefing is more awkward, more time is wasted on background discussion and the analyst is less likely to be prepared to add much value, which is not ideal.

D) Bring the Right People from your Company It’s important to select the best and most relevant spokespeople from your company to attend an analyst briefing. Things to consider when deciding who should attend a call include: the analyst’s seniority, level of technical expertise, vertical industry, and their coverage areas. You should limit company attendees to 2-3 people at the most and offer follow-up communications with other members on the team if necessary.

E) Include Proper Introductions When hosting a briefing, take the time for proper introductions before jumping into your company spiel. Nothing is more awkward than when a company representative launches into slide ware before everyone on the call has a chance to be introduced. While the better analysts will interrupt and suggest introductions, some will not. For the best results, make sure the analyst knows who is on the call and their specific role/s in the company. Also, make sure you let the analyst provide a brief summary of his/her background , coverage areas and specific items of interest before you start, so ideally you can gear the conversation accordingly.

Bottom line, analysts influence people in the business and it is important to be sure they have an accurate perspective on your company and solutions. In next week’s post, we’ll look at more tips to help you make the most of your analyst briefings.

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Developing and Implementing A Customer-Focused Marketing Strategy

One of the most widely quoted statistics in the business world is the failure rate of new companies. While some quote statistics as high as 80 or 90 percent, others believe that 60 or 70 percent is more reasonable. But while it’s clear that nobody knows the exact figure, what’s more important is the reason why so many businesses fail. For the overwhelming majority of new businesses, it’s due to the decided lack of a cohesive marketing strategy.

Though all sectors suffer from this problem to some extent, it seems to be most prominent amongst high technology companies. Despite the efforts of brilliant engineers, who develop amazing technological innovations, most of these companies fail to make any sustainable impact, and fade into obscurity before they’re even known to have existed. That’s because no matter how phenomenal the technology, even the finest ideas don’t sell themselves. Success takes more than just a great idea and the technical wherewithal to build it – it requires a partnership between engineering and marketing.

Most engineering-driven companies develop their product, then look for a market in which to sell it – the diametric opposite of what should happen. Instead, the best chance for success comes from looking at the market first, then building the product that best serves those needs. This is what marketers refer to as being “customer-focused”. In fact, being truly customer-focused goes beyond merely developing a product that serves the customer’s needs. An entire marketing strategy must be developed, with the target customer at its core.

A comprehensive marketing strategy is comprised of four overarching components: product, price, promotion, and place. Each of these four components must be developed with the target customer in mind, and each must work together, to produce one cohesive strategy. Of course, just as with the engineering of the product, developing a winning marketing strategy is much easier said than done. That’s where a professional, experienced marketing team comes in. Just as code, boards, and chips should never be developed by marketers, marketing should never be conducted by engineers.

The 4Ps of Marketing

The 4Ps of Marketing

Despite the fact that marketing seems “easy” relative to engineering projects, it’s entirely too simple to burn through the budget with ineffective marketing campaigns that are unlikely to yield any tangible results. A winning marketing strategy requires a multi-dimensional view of the customer’s needs, wants, and buying behaviors, as well as the ability to translate that information into a sound strategy.

Though developing and implementing a marketing strategy may seem trivial, or a waste of time and money, it can make the difference between success and failure!

Interview with Patrick Conte: Sales and Marketing – Friends or Foes?

Patrick Conte

Patrick Conte

One of the unfortunate realities of today’s market is that many marketing campaigns do not yield the results that were hoped for or promised. This usually leads to finger pointing between sales and marketing, and the battle is usually won by the finger with the greater amount of data, no matter how flimsy.

We asked Patrick Conte, whose career spans more than 25 years of leadership roles with high technology companies in both the private and public sectors, to give his insight on this phenomenon. Patrick is highly regarded for his ability to help high-growth companies successfully navigate market challenges, leverage opportunity and emerge as industry leaders.

Attain Marketing: In your many years in sales and as an executive, often overseeing large teams of sales and marketing professionals, you’ve probably witnessed some interesting dynamics between Sales and Marketing teams. How would you characterize the typical Sales/Marketing relationship and what factors influence the dynamics?

Conte: It is my experience that Sales and Marketing are frequently not on the same page and often the relationship ends up in some sort of conflict. But I believe this can always be traced back to the fact that the senior executives in all functional departments (marketing, sales, engineering, product development, finance) have not agreed upon a single set of shared objectives for the company.

Politics exist in both small and large companies, so unless senior management is united on common corporate goals which keep Sales and Marketing marching in the same direction, personal agendas tend to rear their ugly heads – which may end up affecting the relationship between Sales and Marketing. Since the two organizations are the most “out front” functions, it’s natural that there may be contention unless those organizations sit down and compare notes to make sure they are in synch about what the corporate objectives are and how each will help achieve them.

Attain Marketing: In your opinion, why does a disconnect – and at times animosity – develop between two departments that are supposed to be focused on the same goal of getting more revenue for their company?

Conte: A lot of the time, differences and disconnects in the trenches can be traced back to the fact that the VP of Sales and VP of Marketing, especially in young companies, may be atdifferent places in their career and may be focused on a personal agenda for success vs. the overall success of the company. Obviously it’s very difficult for companies to synchronize the selection of VPs that are in the same place in their careers when they hire them, so it becomes incumbent on these managers to sit down and sort out where their respective positions are so they can make sure they are in synch with overall corporate objectives.

Ultimately the overall goal for the company is to find customers it can help with a set of solutions. Its Marketing’s job to appeal to a broad group, and then its Sales job to find a way to deliver that technology to individual customers. If the Sales and Marketing teams can look at their mission and decide that they are part of a relay where one team will “hand off” to the other when it’s time, they can achieve success even if the VPs are at different points of their career.

Attain Marketing: Now we know everything is usually Sales’ fault (poke), but seriously, what are some of the common complaints you hear from Sales about Marketing? And how often does Marketing become Sales’ scapegoat when revenue numbers don’t match expectations?

Conte: “Your leads suck”, “you have not done the positioning so I don’t know how to talk about this stuff”, “the technology is complex so the messaging needs to be better”, “I am out here alone with no support” are some of the old excuses Sales may fall back on when revenue numbers fall short.”

Ultimately if the revenue numbers are not being met, each organization will come up with a set of reasons why that’s happening. When you believe you are doing a good job and yet expectations are not being met, then its human nature to point a finger at the guy closest to you. If it’s not Marketing’s fault, then let’s blame Engineering for developing a product that does not work, or Finance for being too tight with contracts or compensation packages.

This is something that organizations need to try to avoid, and part of that has to do with how well they hire. Do you hire people that have a level of maturity, not just talent, and who can be introspective about their own jobs and won’t take it personally when you point it out where things can be done better or differently?

Attain Marketing: What tips can you provide Marketing to be more successful engaging and working collaboratively with Sales? And how can Marketing better demonstrate their value to both Sales and the executive team?

Conte: I touched on this previously but the most important point is that senior management from all functional departments need to agree from the beginning “what” is the most important set of corporate objectives and most importantly “why” they are so important. The “why” may be the hardest to agree upon, but it needs to be addressed before the “what” can be successfully delivered.

The main tip is that a common set of objectives must be met. For example, we need to touch ‘x’ number of customers or deliver ‘x’ revenue, or we need to have ‘x’ many impressions in market places, or we need to be included in ‘x’ many analyst reports. Then, based on these objectives, Sales can say “ok Marketing, this is what I need.”

In my opinion, these items – in order- usually are:

  • Strategic positioning – this is where we fit in the marketplace, how we project our vision, where our products fit in the competitive environment, and how do the analysts and press view us.
  • Sales tools and collateral – these are the tools that allow internal folks, sales force, partners and others to readily understand what the company does and product benefits without the need to talk to someone directly. You want people to know about what you do before they talk to someone in Sales – this shortens the sales cycle.
  • Support for the channel or partners – this is a different way of conditioning the sales tools so they are consumable by your unpaid/commission-only salesforce. Or it’s a strategy to reach partners and get them on board with marketing activities.
  • Warm leads – these are different from raw leads in that warm leads are ones in which a prospect has responded to a campaign or set of messages delivered by the company.

I believe that if Marketing can deliver these items, then its Sales job to take the “hand off” from there, which really makes the two organizations partners in what they do. Now, if Marketing successfully delivers all the above and revenue numbers are not met, then Sales has some “splaining” to do (as Ricky would say to Lucy).

Attain Marketing: Any last thoughts, Pat?

Conte: Sales can easily be measured in metrics and numbers to quantify their results, so it’s very easy to blame Sales if revenue numbers are not met. And ultimately it is Sales that is accountable for closing customer deals and delivering revenue results for the company. But it’s fair to get Marketing to agree to metric-based goals – such as how many articles will the company be included in, how many analysts will they talk to, where you want to end up in their reports, how many sales tools will be delivered both internally and to partners, and ultimately, how many warm leads will be developed. This makes it a fair “fight” ;-). In other words, if Sales is going to be measured on numbers – and they should be – then Marketing can be as well.

Making the Sale: Credibility Counts

Early stage companies face challenges on all fronts, but establishing credibility with mainstream buyers is often one of the biggest marketing hurdles.

©iStockPhoto.com/Sveta

©iStockPhoto.com/Sveta

A press release claiming market leadership and marketing materials chock full of tidbits about your product benefits and expected ROI may help initiate conversations, but they won’t close deals.

For products and services with higher price tags, pragmatic business buyers often need more reassurance about the credibility of your company before making a buying decision – especially one that is seen as risky (a.k.a. investing in an innovative technology).

Ultimately prospective customers want peace of mind that you can deliver what you promise. People often seek the opinions of others whom they consider better informed within their community to validate the legitimacy of your company and technology.

Establishing credibility with the influencers within your buyer’s community should be a company priority if you want to hit your sales growth targets. Press, analysts, reference customers and influential partners can make or break your perceived credibility.

When it comes to building credibility it is all about a sound strategy and commitment to execution. While owning a large percentage of market share with a strong customer base can be helpful to your credibility building efforts – it is not essential or a guarantee of success.

We have seen clients with shoe string budgets and only a handful of customers successfully build credibility within their prospective buyer’s community. While better-funded players with broader customer bases may falter because they fail to make credibility a priority.

Here are 7 credibility building strategies and tips that we have seen work for our clients over the years:

  1. Create, document and disseminate a plan of execution. If you fail to plan, you will fail to succeed. Bring company stakeholders together to get buy off on plan goals, tactics, roles and responsibilities, timelines, and metrics for success. Then distribute the plan to everyone in the company.
  2. Declare credibility a company priority. Integrate credibility objectives into company and employee performance goals. Every employee should understand how he/she is expected to contribute towards meeting the goal and provide incentives for employees that make significant contributions.
  3. Resist over-inflating your marketing claims. You quickly lose credibility by claiming your product is a wonder tonic that cures all that ails your prospective buyer. Be realistic about what your product can and can’t do and then consistently deliver on your marketing promises.
  4. Get your sales team on board. Sales people tend to be protective of their relationships and resist opening customer reference discussions too early in the sales cycle. But the most successful companies begin these conversations early and aggressively. Brand promotion and contract discounts can be effectively used as bargaining chips during negotiations to secure reference agreements. But beware… before the deal is inked make sure the customer’s corporate communications team is on board or the agreement may be worthless.
  5. Integrate the plan into every stage of the customer lifecycle. An unhappy customer does not make a good reference no matter what type of pre-sales agreement was forged. Make sure your reference customers get the support they need at all costs.
  6. Build strong relationships with influential press, bloggers and analysts. Research and find the industry influencers, track what they are saying and try to forge a relationship. Avoid spamming this audience with meaningless noise and unsupported claims. The only way to solidify a productive relationship with press and analysts is to provide real value, so be strategic in your communications.
  7. Maximize relationships with strategic partners. High profile partners can elevate your credibility if the partnership has some substance. Microsoft Certified Partners are a dime a dozen, but if you are able to announce that you are joining forces with the likes of Oracle to solve an industry problem, you will instantly garner more credibility.

The Bottomline: Building credibility is a shared responsibility across the entire organization. With a properly executed credibility strategy, even small companies can achieve great things. So get your plan in order, commit to enhancing your credibility quotient, and witness an increase in sales conversion rates and revenues.