Test Your Value Proposition in 3 Simple Steps

A surefire approach to increasing sales!

Prospective customers all want the answer to the same exact question; what do you do and how do you do it better than your competitors?  Every sales representative or distribution channel for your business needs to clearly articulate the value proposition to each target market.

Marketers spend hours, days and weeks in workshops and meetings to carefully develop the perfect elevator pitch.  Then, the company prepares messaging, presentations, campaigns and more to test their theories.  This process is not only time consuming but typically yields at best “hit or miss” results.

Isn’t there a simpler, surefire way to get it right?  Yes, with these 3 simple steps:

1. Create a competitive matrix for each target market.

  • Company profiles, i.e. revenue, locations, # employees, # customers, target markets, sales distribution channels, partner strategies, service and support.
  • Company offerings, i.e. key features, functionality, ease of use, ease of deployment, delivery mechanism, security, pricing.

2. Develop a customer satisfaction survey with open-end and closed questions.

OPEN:  What problem do you solve for them?  How do they use your offering?  Why did they select you versus your competitors?   What do they like about your offering, what don’t they like?  What improvements would they like to see?   What do they like or not like about your company, support, and service?

CLOSED: Can you stack rank certain features/ functionality of the offering?  Do you see certain features or functionality as unique?  Can you rank your overall customer experience?  Can you grade specific service or support calls?

3. Interview your existing customer base

Your best source of feedback, validation or refinement of your competitive advantage/value proposition is right at your feet: your existing customers.  They have already been through the sales process with your company and your competitors, and they selected you!  They are typically friendly, knowledgeable and willing to share the information you need most.  Ask for just 15 minutes and mention that you will be using the feedback to make improvements for them.  Evaluate your results carefully, because existing customers will teach you exactly how to market and sell to new customers, and we all seek the best approach to acquire new customers.

The good news here is that the existing customer base is the lowest cost and most effective way for marketing leaders to corroborate or better articulate competitive differentiators and value propositions.  In fact, listening to existing customers, prospects and targets, keeping your ear to the ground continuously, is the very best way to achieve your goals.

So, what if you don’t have an existing customer base?  Obviously there is the focus group approach, on-line or in person.  Choose a group that is currently using a competitor and ask why.  Ask them the same feature/functionality questions, pricing questions that you would ask an existing customer.  The more narrow and focused your approach, the better the results.

Good luck and good selling!

Radical Transparency

In my last post, “IT Buyers Search for the Truth and Come Up Empty Handed,” I talked about the lack of trust companies have with their technology vendors these days. And I posed the question related to vendors being transparent with customers: what are we so afraid of?

I had an experience recently that was so unusual, so fantastic, so transparent that I wanted to write about it here.

I am the CEO and Founder of a start-up called Wisegate. We are in stealth mode, are working with a tight budget and needed a web conference service. I found GoToMeeting had a free 30-day trial so I signed up.

The month of using the service was fine (easy to use, good experience) but that is not the story here. Four days before my free trial ended they sent me an email telling me my free trial would end in 4-days and telling me how to cancel the service. They did this right up front in the email, no small print, no convoluted machinations required to cancel.

That is transparent behavior! I was so impressed and felt like I could trust them to make it easy should I need to cancel in the future that I stayed with the service and did not cancel.  Since then I have told quite a few people about this experience which I can only call radical transparency.

This is a great example of how behaving in an honest, open manner can grow business. No fear required.

Is it Time to Get Real with Your Marketing?

Like many of my fellow marketers, I am by nature a rose-colored glasses kind of person. I can put a positive spin on just about anything. And if an overly complex product gets labeled “feature rich,” I’m okay with it.

It is like real estate listings where a small house is dubbed “charming” and a total dump is a “fixer upper’s dream.” To me these twists on terms are acceptable because it suits my view of the world.

But in marketing, above all else, it is our responsibility to understand prospective buyer’s needs, wants and desires. It is our mission to correctly frame our product’s value proposition and support the sales cycle with the information prospective customers need to make a buying decision in favor of the product we represent.

Sara Gate’s post on “IT Buyers Search for the Truth and Come Up Empty Handed” forces us to examine whether standard technology vendor marketing practices have failed to meet this responsibility.

Most IT buyers are practical, analytical, cautious and maybe even a bit cynical (okay, some are very cynical). After reading hundreds of technology vendor data sheets – inflated with exaggerated claims, ROI and cost saving numbers – it is easy to see why a lack of trust has evolved.

The truth about product functionality, cost of ownership, and deployment requirements seem like reasonable requests. But I can hear the conversation now about providing “real” answers to these questions: “But our competitors say…” “We will build that functionality if someone buys it.” “Under the right circumstances, a company could deploy our product in a day.” Yeah right, like if the world stopped spinning!

So the question becomes, how real is real enough to win back the trust of IT buyers and where do we draw the line? Microsoft is not going to change its Vista marketing materials to read, “Guaranteed to crash your system” nor would I advocate it.

But perhaps it is time to face the truth that whether we like it or not, the ability to share information (the good and the bad) is rapidly evolving thanks to the rise of social media. And people, in general, are fed up with the Stepford Wife approach to marketing.

Over time, the impact of this trend will be widespread, leaving vendors with a choice to (1) uphold their idealist views of their product and continue to alienate IT buyers, or (2) inject more realism into their marketing.

If you decide in favor of realism, here are a few ideas on how to win back the trust of IT buyers without losing the sale:

  • Stop marketing vaporware or product features that don’t exist. I am not sure how many companies would admit they do this, but the practice is widespread. And when you aren’t fooling anyone anymore, it is time to drop the act.
  • Don’t try to be so perfect. IT buyers have been through enough deployments to know that they never go off without a hitch. So next time you write a case study, don’t leave out that challenge your customer faced during deployment. Instead focus in on how they overcame the obstacle. Prospective buyers will appreciate the honesty and feel better prepared for their own deployment.
  • Two wrongs don’t make a right. Just because your competitors claim they can save companies 90%, doesn’t mean you should. If you cannot support the claim, don’t make it. Prospective buyers would rather see a documented case study with hard numbers that supports a 20% reduction in costs, than be given an empty over-inflated promise.
  • Respond to the conversation. If your marketing materials emphasize usability features, and yet the word on the street is that your user interface sucks, perhaps it is time to pick a new angle for your product until the usability issues are fixed. Tools like Monitter, BoardTracker and Technorati can help you track what people are saying on Twitter, message boards and in the blogosphere.
  • Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. The days of sweeping bad news under the carpet are gone. Be the first to tell your customers if something goes wrong and let them know what you are doing to solve the problem. They will be much more willing to forgive and forget (and you may even win some devoted fans in the process). Social media tools like Twitter are great for spreading your “not so good” news with a personal touch.

It’s your turn …
Share your thoughts, ideas and perspectives on technology vendors’ approach to marketing, IT buyers growing distrust, and how marketers should respond.

IT Buyers Search for the Truth and Come Up Empty Handed

Sara Gates

We’ve asked Sara Gates, a respected leader in the information security world who is well known for helping companies move from early to mainstream markets, to be a guest contributor for the Attain Marketing blog. Sara’s expertise in strategy and product management – combined with a “get it done” attitude and practical approach to solving ITs most critical and timely challenges – brings a fresh perspective on B2B marketing that we hope will benefit all of our readers.

I have had the chance lately to speak with a number of mid and large size companies’ IT Buyers about their buying process. I found the following: IT buyers do not trust vendors. At all. Not one little bit. I should mention that I have been a vendor for over 10 years so hearing this has been a bitter pill.

These buyers seem to have become accustomed to this lack of trust. One Director of IT at a Fortune 500 company said, “trying to figure out which vendor is lying to you the least is tough” (ironically he is with a technology company). His sentiment is shared across a majority of people surveyed. In fact, over 90% of those surveyed indicated that they no longer trust their technology vendors.

They have a heck of a time getting to the truth on simple questions such as:

  • What does the product actually do and not do?
  • How much is this product going to cost me to deploy?
  • How much is this product going to cost me over the next few years (i.e., not just license cost)?
  • Are there special skills needed to deploy and run this product?

As these questions indicate, the lack of trust stems from a lack of transparency into the vendors’ products and services.

I have to ask: What are we vendors so afraid of? What would it hurt if the answers to these questions were available? What would the cost of transparency be? What would the joy of transparency be? I can’t help but wonder if there is a different, more transparent, way.

The Value of Claiming A Niche

I have a dear friend whose personal hallmark is, “I’m not for everyone.” She typically makes the statement right up front as a disclaimer when she meets new people. And she is right.

She is a strange mix of business savvy sales person, think Ivonka Trump, combined with the unplugged and raw style of comedian Kathy Griffin. Enthusiastic, demanding, driven yet funny, quirky and humble – people either love her or run for cover when she enters a room. This fact doesn’t bother her… life is too short to try to please people with whom you share little or no common vision or interest.

She is not trying to force relationships or pretend to be something she is not just to earn someone’s business or call someone a friend. She is more of a niche marketer by nature, focused on creating highly productive relationships with other like-minded individuals.

And in this manner my friend has created quite a loyal following of friends and colleagues who worship the ground that she walks on. I think there are lessons to be learned from her on the value of niche marketing:

Be true to your brand. Know who you are and what you stand for and don’t compromise.  People will question the credibility of the offering if the sales pitch changes for every new opportunity that comes along.

Don’t try to be all things to all people. You will fail miserably. No one thing can be the cure all. I can’t tell you how often we see companies lose market momentum because their resources are distracted chasing after some dead end custom project for a one-off customer.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Generic “one-size-fits-all” messaging doesn’t sell high priced enterprise software and services. If you have limited resources (as is the case with most early stage companies), it is unrealistic to think you can effectively market to multiple verticals. Hint… if all of your industry vertical solution pages contain the same messaging, you may benefit from choosing a niche.

The 80/20 Rule. If eighty percent of the output comes from twenty percent of the input, we can all benefit by defining and targeting the twenty percent of the market that can bring us the most value.

And finally… Don’t be afraid of commitment. So many companies are afraid to choose a target market because they may choose the wrong one. But like the eternal bachelor, by not choosing they effectively alienate all the contestants through a lack of commitment to a single focus.

Speak the Language of Customers

To effectively market a new product, you must be able to name it and frame it in terms that resonate with your target audience. Potential customers will not buy what they cannot name or understand.

All too often we see technology vendors define their positioning behind closed doors, then cross their fingers and hope the message spreads like wild fire. The end result can be disappointing if not catastrophic.

Positioning exists in people’s minds, not in your words. If you want the market to understand your value proposition, you must frame a position in words that actually exist in other people’s minds.

Too much time spent with your founder and developers can desensitize you and make you believe those acronyms and techno-terms are commonplace, but don’t be deceived. If your friends and family have trouble articulating to others what your products does and why anyone should care, then you may need to rethink your positioning.

So where is a B-to-B tech marketer to find the words to describe the coolest invention since sliced bread? Try listening to prospective customers. Tune into their conversations to find out how they are describing the challenges they face and products – benefits and features – that are relevant to the solution you provide. Then integrate that language into your marketing materials.

Tactical Tips for Learning the Language of Customers

  1. Find the bloggers that are writing about your topic area. Subscribe to their feed, read their stuff and the comments they receive regularly.
  2. Join LinkedIn and industry groups that cater to the market segment you intend to serve. Tune out the vendor rhetoric and focus on user posts and comments.
  3. Use your network to find people who match the profile of your prospective buyers. Ask for 15 minutes of their time to discuss the market issues. Try not to let your viewpoint influence the conversation…just listen.
  4. Monitor discussion boards and forums to understand the real strengths and weaknesses of your competitors. Drinking too much of the company Kool-Aid can be harmful to the health of your marketing messages. A dose of reality will help ground you.
  5. Research keywords that are in use by your target demographics. Tools like Google AdWords Keyword Tool or WordTracker can help you research the popularity of keywords that may be used to categorize your products and services. Be leery of keywords that yield little or no results.

Your press releases, collateral, email campaigns and even product packaging can all benefit from the language used by real life tech buyers. With your new market-aware messaging in place, your founder may miss those special terms that he/she coined, but your prospective customers just might thank you with a shortened sales cycle.