The 5 Questions to Ask to Create a Compelling Value Proposition

Original post date July 16, 2009

I’m about to share with you the secret formula for; 1) creating a rock solid, compelling value proposition (for products, services, solutions, etc.) and, 2) aligning (enterprise wide) your corporate communications.  It will seem like a very simple approach, and it is, but once you try to get consistent answers from the organization to the following questions (in order) you will understand why this is so challenging…and why so many companies fail.

Keep this in mind, effective communication to customers must happen through a consistent delivery of the right message, to the right customer, at the right time, in the right channels to facilitate effective, efficient dialogue.

This is how you do it. You have to be able to collectively (with the right internal groups) answer the following five questions in order:

  1. Who? – what audience/segment are you targeting, and why
  2. What? – what do you want/have to say to that segment that is relevant
  3. Why? – why would they listen
  4. When? – when do you contact them, and how often
  5. Where? – where do they want to receive the message

Sounds simple right?  Here are a list of challenges you will face when go through the process:

  • Who – right off the bat, you will find folks arguing about your target audience, the segmentation approach, the segments, etc.
  • What – oh, you’ll have plenty of things you what to tell whatever audience you settle on but you will struggle with relevancy
  • Why – now comes the killer question…why would they listen? Seen this question bring grown men (and women) to their knees. The reasons are many; Marketers don’t understand the products, products aren’t differentiated, etc. Getting this question right is the key to the whole process.
  • When – the challenge is deciding on at what point in a sales process, a marketing campaign, events, etc., and the frequency of contact. Touch them too often and/or at the wrong point you’ll get opt-outs, too infrequently, you’ll get no mindshare.
  • Where – notice that I said, “they”, and not “you” on where the communication happens. Yes, it’s about your customer and where they go for information not where you want to put it. Find out where your audience goes to get information and/or determine their perference for receiving it. The othe challenge is ensuring that the message fits the channel. Certain messages/value proposition, etc. fit a certain channel better than others. It’s worth the time to figure this out.

This approach creates an execellent output but it will take time, discipline and many iterations to get right…good luck.

Financial Services Melt Down

Original post date September 23, 2008
Wow, what a couple of weeks it’s been for the Financial Services industry. Investment Banks have disappeared, the government owns the world’s largest insurance company and Congress is debating whether taxpayers should foot the bill to get us out of the largest financial debacle since the great depression.So what might all this mean to sales and marketing folks in the industry? Our Financial Services practice and I have spent the last week and a half looking at the changes and have come up with a list of potential areas that may be impacted…negatively or positively. I’ve even gotten feedback from a colleague in Europe on what this might mean internationally. Keep in mind that the crisis is shifting everyday, so this is like trying to look over the horizon while standing in quick sand.

Here we go:

  1. Greater regulation across the industry will reduce the number of ‘innovative” products making it more challenging to differentiate by product. As a result, companies will need to increase the importance on competing through superior distribution, and having an unique segment aligned value proposition.
  2. A greater need for solution sellers vs product pushers – In this environment, sales channels with reps that can sell value will be essential.” Additionally, the need to sell new services “bundles” necessitates more sophisticated reps. Product Pushers” who sell on price will continue to erode already pressured margins. We may also see someone like Progressive uses their direct model to commoditize more products/services perhaps some low end products in the Commercial Insurance market. If you are an agency or broker, move up the value chain to selling sophisticated service solutions. Wholesalers and/or Aggegrators may help facilitate that shift. Relationships are still key but “best price” will continue to be the key consideration driver.
  3. A significant need to lower the cost to sell – Increased regulation most likely will add cost and/or impact margin. Companies will have to find a way to do more with less. They may also look to new lower cost channels to distribute products. Relationships + low cost, self service channels = success. Because solution sellers are hard to find and more expensive, there will be a focus on finding ways to create “leverage” for channels/reps.
  4. Customers will have greater leverage – Good customers will be in the driver’s seat. They will be more cautious, demand greater value and lengthen sales cycles. Profitable customers will be highly valued and targeted, see bullets 6,7, and 8.
  5. New risk models or new underwriters – There may be a need to rethink how companies evaluate, take on, sell and/or manage risk. This may also be impacted by new regulations.
  6. Improved segmentation & predictive modeling – Cost pressure and increased competition will force the need to improve targeting, increase yield of programs and campaigns, and get the most out of existing customers (increasing cross sell and upsell opportunities).
  7. Increase focus on retention and loyalty – Investment banks, now bank holding companies or a part of a Retail bank will now have to fund their activities on customer deposits rather than “funny money”. Look for them to come after your best customers.
  8. New competitors, “Super Banks” & consolidation – Look for the pace of consolidation to pick up with the recent changes. The banking landscape has changed with Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley becoming bank holding companies. This sets them up to either acquire banks themselves and/or merge or being acquired. Existing players, such as BofA and Barclays, are picking up the pieces that will help them expand services.

My colleague, Mathew Stewart in our London Office chimes in;

  1. Safety in geographical diversification–Major international banks will seek a more geographically diversified portfolio. Being active in U.S. and Europe is not sufficiently diversified to protect against the crisis, as UBS discovered. Those who were strong in China, India, and Brazil have faired better. For example, HSBC’s huge U.S. write-offs were counterbalanced by spectacular gains in their Asian operations, so their shares have stayed stable. Santander, a European bank, has faired well due to its involvement in Brazil, and is now buying up businesses from cash-strapped competitors, e.g Royal Bank of Scotland. Some of the bigger banks will seek to copy HSBC and Santander – most do not have sufficient reach, and are more likely to merge with a domestic competitor.
  2. Domestic mergers lead to channel rationalization headaches. More domestic banking mergers mean more headaches around how to combine two different sets of distribution channels. These are tough decisions. Huge investment has been sunk into branch networks, a regulated sales forces, broker networks and brands. Exit costs are very high. Banks need a rational basis on which to base their channel rationalization decisions.
  3. You’ve killed your partner channel. What do you do now? Over the past 10 years many of the reputable agents and intermediaries have come to rely more and more on cheap credit deals for their income. When the banks stopped lending they were the first to go bust – not just the charlatans and quacks, but some good people who will not now come back to the market in a hurry. When the bank is ready to expand again, how do they rebuild the partner channel?
  4. Look again at Buy vs. Build. Mergers also present dilemmas for product portfolio managers. There are make or buy decisions for different product categories– e.g. should a bank sell its own general insurance? Difficult to know what will happen here. Will the drive for more transparency in investment products actually extend into all FS products?

The Corporate “Hangover” From High Demand

Remember when you had a unique product, a top-notch sales force, customers who couldn’t get enough of your product and were willing to pay anything for it. Sales reps couldn’t close deals fast enough and the factory couldn’t keep pace with the orders. Little to no inventory cost, high margins, an incredibly productive sales force, big bonuses, soaring stock, etc…things couldn’t be better. But what happens when demand begins to slip?

One of the first things to occur is that your best customers, who in the past had no leverage, begin to feel the advantage shift their way and sales reps (unknowingly and for the most part unwillingly) help that transition.

As demand cools, good sales reps who are trained negotiators and born manipulators, begin turning their finely tuned sales skills on the organization. Feeling the pressure to close business and meet quota, reps begin “selling” the organization on what they need in order to get the deal done.

Instead of driving customers into existing solutions with a premium price, they take the course of least resistance, demanding that the organization bend to meet the customer’s (not the company’s) requirements. The company “customization” party goes on for as long as the sales quotas exceed market demand for the product.

The Hangover Effect

What does the company look like after the party? Unfortunately, like most good parties, the news of the festivities grows and involves most of the organization. At the end, it is not a pretty site and it take years to clean up. Here’s a list of the mess left behind:

  1. Large contract departments – When demand is high, customers typically agree to standard terms and conditions in order to get the product as quickly as possible. As demand slows customers begin to try to gain leverage by modifying the “T’s & C’s” of a contract to their advantage. Reps desperate to get the deal signed before the end of the quarter apply pressure to the legal and contract departments to accept customer terms. This results in contracts so complex to manage, that additional staff is needed to administer them.  In one hi-tech firm, for example, it takes a staff of four to perform administrative tasks related to just one large customer contract. Multiply that by twenty large customers and you begin to see the problem.
  2. Complex product and price configurations – In the eyes of the customer, the value of the rep shifts from problem solver and solution provider to personal customer advocate. The same demand for customization of “T&C” is applied to product configuration and pricing arrangements. The result is highly customized solutions, hard-to-write service agreements, and complex payment terms that may end up costing the company money.  The response from the product management team of an ATM manufacturer working on standardizing product configuration was: “We have been trying to do this for years, but the sales force wouldn’t let us.”
  3. Order Taking vs. Order Making — A nasty side effect of this hangover is that when demand slows it reveals flaws that would otherwise had been hidden. One of those is seen in the quality of the sales force. The difference between “order takers” and “order makers” becomes apparent in a slow marketplace. In this environment of longer sales cycles and fickle customers, sales reps must work harder than ever for the sale that doesn’t hold much appeal for reps who are used to making quota without much effort.   A sales rep at a one-time highflying manufacturer of telecom and web equipment was overheard saying in the hall to a colleague; “…I’m afraid we are back to the bad old days when customers required a business case and ROI for every purchase decision…” 
  4. A Service Nightmare – When product configuration becomes so highly customized, it limits the number of service reps who have the competency to work on the equipment. This results in long service times. Worse yet is when service reps turn over, new reps, which lack the knowledge of the original configuration, begin applying short term service “band-aids” that sacrifice product performance.   In addition, complex product configurations bring complex service agreements. As is the case for orders, service contracts become incredibly difficult to administer and manage. For example, one customer of an equipment manufacturer demanded that each component of the product have its’ own unique service agreement…all 200 parts.
  5. Remarketing vs. Marketing – Marketing gets the opportunity to host the party. Because demand for most products already exists, marketers focus their efforts on having fun catering to big customers and satisfying the whims of the sales organization (big expensive customer events, sponsorships of sporting events, etc.). Their activities are nothing more than “remarketing” to existing customers to keep the party going.

As the downturn comes, marketing is stuck with pre-conditioned customers and reps who are looking for “fun” and “fluff”. Unfortunately in this environment, marketing never develops the types of programs and core competencies needed to effectively sell products and acquire new customers right when the company needs it the most.

Best Cure for the Hangover
It’s not the hair of the dog that bit you that’s for sure and unfortunately, this hangover does not respond to a quick fix like a couple of aspirin or a new technology. Here are a few tips for getting started:

  • Map out a plan – you didn’t get into this overnight and you’re not getting out quickly. Start small and stay focused.
  • Find/Create opportunities to standardize and/or simplify– force events such as technology implementation or new product introduction to standardize process, price and services.
  • Understand that not everyone is going to make it – the hiring profile for reps and managers 10 to 20 years ago when the sales force was built may not make it – order takers vs. order makers. The service and marketing departments may also need retooling. New competencies, skill sets and training are also necessary for those who make it.
  • Utilize new sales and marketing channels and retrain existing channels – introduce and pilot new sales and marketing channels that increase customer coverage, reduce overall sales cost, and improve customer acquisition. Help field sales reps find their “sweet spot” (closing large complex orders in new accounts) by providing training on multi-channel coverage models.
  • Draw a line with customers – Analyze and determine the profitability of your customer base. Segment it into three groups: 1) Profitable, 2) Marginal but with Potential, 3) Unprofitable with no potential.   Begin the process of re-conditioning the way customers in segment #2 buy. You’ve created the monster and now you have to tame it. In segment #3, begin the process of terminating the relationship.

In the end, it is like any hangover. You feel terrible, you have a few (or a lot) of regrets, you promise to yourself and others that you’ll never do it again — but…it was fun while it lasted.