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Building a Corporate Persona is the Key to Differentiating Your Company

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Take out a piece of paper, and write down what you think makes your company different from its competitors.  Now, Google your competitors and see if you can tell the difference between what you wrote, and how they describe themselves.  If it sounds the same, keep reading.

Let’s say you’re the CEO of a fortune 500 company looking for some advice.  Two top tier global consulting firms are recommended, and based on their website descriptions of “Who They Are” which one would you chose?

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Can’t decide?  That’s the challenge I’m talking about.  Although one firm uses “advisors”, they are describing what the firms do, not who they are, and as you can see, the sound the same.  If some of the smartest guys in the business are getting it wrong, and they’re the “advisors to the world’s leading businesses” you shouldn’t feel bad.

Why is it so hard?   There are two key reasons; the first being in B2B, we are conditioned to think that what we do is who we are.   It’s the Achilles heel of effective marketing communications, the bad habit of over communicating and focusing what you sell (what you do) versus who you are (what makes you different).

Making things worse is when B2B marketers talk about the value of what their company does, they use terms associated with business value, the functional benefit or business outcome of the product or service being sold (e.g. increase revenue, reduce cost, retain customers, etc.).  It’s non-differentiating because competitors use the same language, and that’s the second major challenge to overcome.

Over the years, marketing communication has evolved from talking about how great the company was to talking about what it does for customers.  Thankfully the “we’re number 1″ days are over but unfortunately, the “what we do for customers” has been defined by what the company sells.  It is time to evolve again and speak to more about the “DNA” of the organization.  Research from CEB has shown that buyers figure out what companies sell (what you do) relatively quickly.  It takes them much longer to figure out why they should buy from one company or another.

And surprisingly, when they do make the decision, it often has little to do with “business value” of the product or service itself, and more to do with the emotional connection they feel to it, or to your brand.  Buyers are not the rational beings we once thought, they do business with businesses for very personal reason, according to the CEB research.  As a result, they want to get to know the company as well as they know the product or service.

So, how do you “humanize” the company? Here are some tips to get your started:

  • Ask customers – sounds obvious, but rarely happens.  Ask them why they do business with your organization and others.  You might be surprised by what you’ll learn; it may have nothing to do with your products or services. Use this information to communicate back to them “who you are” in the language and context that is meaningful to them.
  • Survey employees – this may help uncover why the organization can’t get on the same page when it comes to defining the company.  Employees have a tendency to define the company and what it does, based on their own experience with the products they know, and customers they serve.  As a result, they have a myopic view of the organization.  You will find multiple views on your value, and the type of company you are, across your organization.
  • Decide on the type of company you are – pick up a copy of Michael Treacy’s Discipline of Market Leaders.  In it, Treacy and Fred Wiersema define three value proposition types based on business models; Operational Excellence, Product Leadership, and Customer Intimacy.  Use this framework as a starting point to define your organization and its’ language.  It also helps get everyone on the same page.

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  • Create a persona – once you have consensus on the type of organization and its value to customers, it is time to figure how to differentiate it.  In this step, use brand archetypes to help define the company persona. Here’s a free list of 40 archetypes.  Create a working session and have the group discuss how the company views the world, how it reacts to bad or good news, how it speaks — what is the tone?  Keep the conversation away from what the company makes or does, and on the organization itself.

Buyers have changed.  They want to know who you are, because they already know what you do.  And they’re looking for a little of themselves in your brand.  Relate to them on a human level.  Tell them who you are in a way that connects with them. If you do, it will differentiated you, because like people, no two organizations are exactly alike.

Everything We Thought We Knew about B-to-B is Wrong Video

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In December, I had the opportunity to be the Keynote speaker at the Bowery Capital CMO Summit in NYC.  The event featured a number of high profile CMO’s speaking with an audience of mostly early stage startups (under 20 employees).

My presentation was based on the recent Forbes blog post Everything We Thought We Knew about B-to-B Marketing in Wrong.  The audience also included some local media, a reporter from CMO.com wrote a summary of the speech.

 

Everything We Thought We Knew About B2B Marketing is Wrong

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What company do customers feel most connected to emotionally?

Apple?  Nope.  Amazon?  Sorry.  It must be Nordstrom’s then, right?  Not even close. To find the company that has the strongest emotional connection with customers, you have to leave the consumer world behind.  Blows your mind, doesn’t it.

According to new research from Google and the CEB, customers are more emotionally connected to B2B brands, and it’s not even close.  The company customers say that they are most emotionally connect to is…Cisco.

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Why?  Well, it’s about understanding risk.  The more risk involved with a purchase decision, the higher the likelihood of an emotional connection.  Increase the variables related to risk (e.g. losing a job, wasting corporate investments) and you have the ingredients for an emotionally involved buyer.   Personal risks peak when others are counting on you to make the right decision and the stakes are highest.

How did Cisco become number 1?  It has to do with Cisco’s ability to reduce risk with buyers.  Forrester ‘s Evaluate Your Channel Partner Loyalty Program, surveyed over 250 hi-tech business partners to understand the drivers of loyalty.  Partners were asked to select the reason/s “why their most strategic vendor is their most important vendor” (see the table below).

Screen Shot 2013-10-27 at 6.57.52 PMPartners, buyers of Cisco gear, selected Cisco for the strength of the relationship, despite that fact that Cisco was also the most profitable vendor (established earlier in the research).  Cisco partners value the relationship more highly than other partners, 26% more.

The reason is related to how Cisco is able to create and communicate what the CEB and Google research describes as “personal value” consisting of four parts; professional, social, emotional and self-image benefits.  Some of which are communicated, others realized through the customer experience.  For example, existing customers understand the “personal value” associated with an existing vendor 2X that of non-customers.

Cisco has built a strong “personal value” equation by investing heavily in their partner’s success.  It supports them professionally through training and certification programs.  Invest in the brand to support the emotional bond and self-image, and in sales and marketing activities to drive demand.

All of which reduces the risk associate with failure, be it personally or professionally.  And in return, they trust Cisco with their livelihood, valuing the “Relationship” above rational drivers, like profits and revenue.

Getting Personal and Emotional

How can we leverage this insight?  To start, focus on better communicating “personal value” to non-customers.  The research found that brand messaging connects with buyers early on, but the excitement wanes over time as we move down the buyer journey into the evaluation phases.

The rational brain takes over to assess risk, and the complications associated with the purchase, at this point as much as 50% of the potential deals stall or fall out of the process.  Risk impacts their initial positive emotions, and unfortunately, we don’t much to help them.

To counter those feelings engage them with personal-value messaging, go beyond just using feature/functionality language (functional benefits) to describe products or services by combining the emotional and self-expressive benefits as well (see below).

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Like Cisco, understand how your products or services impact buyers.  Does it make them feel “smarter” by having the latest technology, or more “secure” in their role.  Although buyers are individuals with unique personalities, and should be treated that way, they most likely share the same fears, uncertainties, and doubts we have in our roles.

Get to know them, like you know yourself.  Stop assume they are always rational and buy on price and/or functionality.  And finally, realize that there are customers who are emotionally connected to your brand, and/or highly value their relationship with your organization, and when they say that they “love your product or company”…they actually might just mean it.

The Disappearing Sales Process

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Twenty-five years ago, I was a snot-nosed kid out of college who suddenly decided that law school was not in the future.  With a recession on, and needing to pay the rent, I took the first job offered and went into sales.

Having learned nothing about the profession in college, I picked up a copy of Miller Heiman’s Strategic Selling — still have a dog-eared copy on my bookshelf.  I learned everything I could about the buyer types, account management, and the sales process.  “Know the process work the process,” as my first sales manager used to say.

Typically, that process came down to 5-to-7 steps that generally covered the following areas below.

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Over the years, I found that working the process helped give you sense of control.  It came down to the numbers; calls, leads, transaction sizes or conversion rate.  Call on X number of qualified prospects to get Y amount of proposals, at Z close rate, and you made bonus.

But, research from Google and CEB entitled The Digital Evolution in B2B Marketing provides new insight into buyer behavior, and it challenges the conventional wisdom.  According to the study, customers reported to being nearly 60% through the sales process before engaging a sales rep, regardless of price point.   More accurately, 57% of the sales process just disappeared.

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What are buyers doing if they’re not talking to sales?  Well, they’re surfing corporate websites to identify and qualify vendors, instead of the sales forces qualifying them.  They are engaging peers in social media to learn more about their needs, potential solutions, and providers.  And they’re reading, listening to, and watching free digital content that is available to them at the click of a mouse.  No longer is the sales force the sole source of information.

What does this mean for sales and marketing? 

The study recommends focusing efforts in three areas; 1) improve marketing communication integration, 2) develop and activate a content strategy, and 3) strengthen multichannel analytics.  Nothing new or breakthrough here, but the study provides good examples of how companies are executing against each point.

However, I found a number of other points to take from the research.

  1. It is not all bad news – for products or services with low price points and/or margins, having customers self direct themselves through the sales process can help reduce the cost of sale and/or create leverage for the sales force.  In fact, in certain situations an organization will want to encourage and/or incent this behavior.  The research also found that some customers felt comfortable going through 70% of the process before making contact.
  2. Changing buying behavior – an old manager used to say that technology changes fastest, then consumer buyer behavior, and eventually, organizations.  The “57%” stated in the research makes for a good sound bite; the fact is, that number will vary, greatly by customers, transaction, industry, etc.  The point is that change is a constant; the question is how far ahead or behind is your sales and marketing efforts? Are you keeping pace?  The second question is, how would you know?
  3. Content Distribution – as the study notes, the sales force is still the most effective and important communication channel.  When developing the content strategy ensure that the best and/or most valuable content is not in the public domain, reserve it for the sales force.
  4. Time to Take Social Media Seriously – with well-informed prospects, sales reps have to quickly learn what buyers know or perceive about the organization, products/services and competitors.  Social media can help them better understand what is motivating buyers to take action, what buyers believe to be true, and perhaps most importantly, who they believe.

The Future

Business decision makers will continue to drive their buyer process deeper into the sales process.   As a result, relevant content will continue to escalate in value, especially content related to consideration and purchase drivers, and the business application of the product or service.

Social media and monitoring has helped many marketing organizations understand this trend and to make the transition from being content “dictators” to information “facilitators.”

For sales, the research may be an epiphany.  No longer can it be successful focusing solely on an inwardly directed process intended for reporting and planning purposes.

With ever-increasing knowledgeable buyers waiting longer to engage, sales has to transition from being a “product pusher” following a process, to an insight “provider” adding value to the buyers business.  As the study states, sales must deliver “pointed insights and evidence that seek to challenge an entrenched point of view among potential customers.”

Finally, it is time to recognize that we’re not in control, and perhaps we never were.  The traditional sales process is now obsolete; it is now time to follow the buyers’ journey.

Selecting and Enabling Channel Partnerships

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Original post date November 22, 2010

On Wednesday November 17th, I attended the Corporate Executive Board’s Enterprise Council on Small Business member meeting in Philadelphia.  The meeting entitled Selecting and Building Channel Partnerships included attendees from about 10 member companies such as; Xerox, Symantec, Experian, Erie Insurance and Comcast, who hosted the event.

ECSB practice leaders opened the meeting reviewing recent research on enabling channel partners to effectively sell to small business (title of the post).  The research compared the performance of high and low performing partner programs.  The meeting also included a review of best practice case studies.   Highlights from the research include:

  • How small business owners want to buy – business owners stated that the type of supplier most preferred was a local supplier (34%), followed by a sales rep selling multiple lines (26%).   Top 3 reasons they buy from a local supplier; 1) location, 2) know them personally, and 3) responsiveness (immediate answers to questions).
  • What high performing partners want from companies – 1) Training (all types), 2) Evaluation (compensation related), and 3) Resources (access to information, additional infrastructure, etc.)   This was interesting because low performing partners ranked Leads as #1.
  • High Performing vs Low Performing Partners – the size or maturity of the partner’s business did not impact the findings, however the age of the ownership team did; younger partners performed better than their older peers.
  • Partner Compensation - the preferred plan was overwhelmingly  “percentage of sales” 38%; flat $ per unit commission 17%, and discount (either dollar or percentage) was 13%.

Highlights from the case studies and discussion:

  • Measuring Partner Performance - 61% of partners said that they are evaluated on a single metric. Number one metric “Volume of Sales”.  Most of the attendees also agreed, only one had used an additional measurement for performance.
  • Net Promoter – the additional metric used was a net promoter score to measure the performance of partners…really interestiing application of this tool
  • Using a Third Party Facilitator –  the use of a third party mediator was highlighted in one of the best practice case studies.  The company used an outside facilitator to help the two companies negogiate a partner agreement.   The goal of the mediator was to encourage honesty, and bring about an accurate appraisal of the relationship potential.  Really interesting process to get at what’s in it for both parties, and for getting everyone aligned on expectations.

My key takeaway was that there is a significant opportunity to improve partner performance that is being missed. The opportunity is directing partners to desired customers and/or market segments.   Granted some partners are selected just for that reason, but in general, companies do not typically articulate what customers they want or who are best for their products.  A couple of members mentioned that they organize products against customer segments and assume that points partners in the direction of those customers.

I don’t think that is enough.  At the end of the day, manufacturers know how to sell products better then partners.   As a result, they should know which customers/type of customer will most value their product or service, and those customers that will be most profitable and loyal.  Use this information to help partners understand, and identify what a good customer looks like, and why.  Give clear direction on what you want.  If there is one thing we’ve learned from previous research, it is clear communications with partners is highly valued, that in itself might be a wi