What's wrong with your marketing? And what you can do about it
Your salespeople are telling everyone that your marketing efforts are irrelevant, and that they're not getting what they need. Your Web site is more of a budgetary black hole than a business booster. You believe there are untapped revenue opportunities for your company, but you haven't succeeded in exploiting them. You know you are supposed to be "branding" and "positioning" your company, but every time these vague concepts come up, there are huge dollar signs attached to them, and you have no way of knowing if spending the money will produce the desired result.
Welcome to the current state of software marketing
Why is marketing such a mess? Because you’re marketing people aren't regularly talking to real prospects and real customers, so the marketing pieces they produce don't answer the questions that these vitally important people are asking as a prelude to buying. Your Web site reflects your company's internal view of the world, instead of making it ridiculously easy for prospects and customers to take the actions they want to take. And your attempts at branding are falling short because you're focusing on changing the perceptions held by your customers instead of changing what actually created those perceptions in the first place: their expectations about companies in your market and your company's behavior as it attempts to meet those expectations. In other words, it's not what you say about yourself that matters. It's what you do for-or to-your customers that creates your reputation. Just by virtue of being in a particular industry, you are making implied promises to your customer. For example, people who buy boats expect them to float. People who buy software expect it to perform as advertised, to be updated regularly and properly supported. More importantly, they expect your software to be state-of-the-art, and to solve their business problems. They expect you to be the experts with the answers. If not you, who? Every time a prospect or a customer interacts with your company, you're either keeping the promises your customers expect you to keep, or you're breaking them. If you continually break them, you will someday be out of business. If you keep these promises better than your competitors, you will rise to the top of the heap.
How branding really works
Anyone can make promises. We all do it, all the time. In fact, you and your competitors are all making the same promises, in sales call after sales call. Guess what? The prospects aren't listening any more. They know everyone's sales speeches by heart. When your salesperson starts talking about "increased productivity, ROI, scalability, flexibility, user friendliness, and ease of integration," prospects think, "Blah, blah, and blah." They switch your salesperson off with their mental mute button. Software companies have been making these same promises for more than 30 years, and they've broken them all. Each prospect has personally experienced these disappointments, over and over.
The people you're selling to have one big question: "What's going to happen to me after I buy?" That's it. Show them exactly what the product does and how it does it. Tell them exactly what steps are involved in the installation. Tell them exactly how many hours of consulting will be required, what their IT people will have to do, how much it will cost, and when they can expect a return on their investment. Show them specific examples of how others have used the product and what happened. You need to continually uncover the promises that your prospects want you to keep (i.e., solving the business problems they're wrestling with).
Then, decide which of those promises you can fulfill most effectively, using the five basic resources at your disposal: your products, people, processes, policies and principles. How you utilize these resources can give you an edge-or cost you the sale. Objectively examine your strengths and weaknesses in these five areas. Rely on customer input, not the self-exonerating stories and rationalizations that circulate within the company and are accepted as true because they make everybody feel OK. Most software companies have decent people and products, but are weak in processes, principles, and policies. Their executives don't appreciate the power of customer-pleasing processes and so their policies are confusing and counterproductive. If you truly understand what your customers want, and you've examined how your products, people, processes, policies, and principles can meet these needs, you will have uncovered your own best competitive advantage. You will have identified the promise that you are able to keep, better than your competitors can.
This promise should become your brand. Everything that is associated with your company should make or reinforce this promise, and-even more importantly-everyone in your company must be motivated to do their part to keep the promise, every day. It's up to you, the CEO, to perpetually keep the whole company fixated on this goal. If you succeed, the normally dueling factions will begin working together more effectively, in spite of themselves. All decisions and actions will become more customer-driven. Your prospects and customers will start to experience your focus and dedication for themselves, making them more than happy to give you their money. Connecting marketers and your customers
How do you discover the promises that prospects and customers want you to keep? You start by setting up a mandatory customer contact program. This cannot be undertaken casually. You must insist that everyone in your marketing department (except for graphic designers) interview one to three customers a week, on the phone. You must insist that you get a weekly report on their findings. You need to be persistent about this, because we guarantee that your marketers will find hundreds of "perfectly valid reasons" for not making these calls, including, "Salespeople won't let me talk to customers," "I have too many deadlines," "No one will speak to me," and so on. Don't accept any of their protests. After just a few weeks, your marketers will start realizing how educational and empowering it is to talk to customers, and you will start to see trends. You will have data that can help you make the connection between what customers want and what your company can deliver. Your marketing people must ask open-ended questions and listen non-defensively. In other words, they should not correct any misperceptions nor defend the company as the customer is talking. After they've heard the customer’s entire story, if there is a solution available, they can direct the customer to that solution. Or, if it's something that needs to be fixed, they can always go back to the customer later to tell them that you've fixed a problem. It's a great excuse to send a customer good news. During the course of the phone conversation, they should ask: "What's your biggest problem right now? What was your buying process-who was involved and what were your biggest concerns? If you were the CEO of our company tomorrow, what's the first thing you would focus on?" (We've put together a Calling Guide that includes step-by-step instructions; just ask for it via an e-mail to Kristin Zhivago.)
When marketers talk to customers personally, they become more familiar with your technology. They come to understand the problems the customer is wrestling with. They realize what the company should be doing for the customer that it isn't doing now. They start to write copy that resonates with prospects and makes it easier for the salespeople to sell. Should they also talk to prospects as well as customers? Only if you don’t have any customers. It's far better to start with a successful sale and work backwards. Also, every one of your customers was once a prospect, and still is, even after the sale, because your competition is always trying to do anything and everything to woo them away. Customers are also excellent sources of information about your company, because they've experienced how your company has treated them in a variety of situations. Customers are surprisingly willing to spend time educating you. Helping you helps them.
Once your marketing people have made 20 or 30 of these calls, hold a whiteboard meeting where you gather the marketing, sales, and product marketing people in a room. Use the whiteboard to build a table that shows the steps in a typical buying process, who's involved, what their concerns are and how they're addressed. Click here for an example of what a finished table looks like. It may take all day to build the table. Don't be deterred - it's one of the best investments you'll ever make. You, the CEO, must run the meeting. The salespeople will start out with their arms folded, insisting that there is no such thing as a "typical buying process." That's because salespeople believe that their individual persuasive brilliance closes each sale. But if you look at all sales in aggregate, you will see that there is such a thing as a "complete buying process," starting with lead generation, moving through various interactions with customers, and coming to a conclusion.
Prospects may enter the buying process at different stages. But no matter where their buying process starts, your salesperson has to have the tools necessary to complete the sale from that point forward. As you start to build the table, your salespeople will realize that they are the real experts in the room when it comes to the buying process. They will also start to understand how much this table will help them. Soon they’ll relax and start actively contributing. In fact, if you're not careful, they'll take over the meeting. Note: Don't even bother to hold this meeting until your marketing people has interviewed a sufficient number of customers. Otherwise they will have nothing of significance to contribute. After they've interviewed customers, on the other hand, their contributions will include their natural empathy for the prospect's point of view, their ability to identify trends, and their talent for matching prospect needs with selling messages. So far we've talked about the power of a promise that you can keep, how to figure out what that promise is, and how to support the prospect's buying process. If you do these three things, you'll be way ahead of competitors who haven't yet pulled the plug on over-priced consultants who are attempting to give them an "image." Their salespeople will continue to go out into the field unprepared, depending on marketing people who are attempting to persuade people they've never talked to.
But if you're really want to break away from the pack, there's more you can do.
Putting your Web site to work
Take full advantage of the Web and the increased sophistication of pay-per-click search engine listings. Google AdWords Select and Overture have made it particularly easy to buy the best position in a given market. When someone's search uses a popular phrase, make sure they land on a page designed to specifically address that line of inquiry. Don't just send them to your home page. Offer them something in exchange for their contact information, such as a truly educational white paper or technical document. Send the leads to your inside sales force, and have them call the customer within 15 minutes of their registering on your site. One software company we know of, using these methods, actually spoke to the person who had just registered 40% of the time. Their appointment-to-registration ratio was 8%. The prospects getting the calls were pleasantly surprised to be contacted so quickly-at their "moment of need"-and were glad to cooperate. The inside salespeople made appointments for the outside salespeople. After the salesperson met with the prospect, he or she would get a follow-up, easy-to-fill-in-the-blanks e-mail questionnaire from the marketing person asking for a report on the meeting. This made it possible to track leads through to sales. Jill Snyder, a marketing person who ran just such a program, is out on her own now, helping software companies optimize their search engine and marketing efforts.
The Web has become the primary tool for buyers researching products. In our work for software firms, including Navision, Dow Jones, IBM, and hundreds of smaller companies, we have found that Web sites are built backwards. They start with existing, internally generated content. Then they attempt to give their audience a way to take action on the content. Instead, you should first determine the actions your audience wants to take and then support those actions with appropriate content.
In other words, avoid creating sites using the "Content is organized so actions can be taken on the content by an audience" method. Start using the “audience actions dictate which content is posted, and how" method.
What do they want to do? How do they want to do it? In what order? How can you make it easier for them? Be prepared to get rid of any "content babies” that content creators are fond of but that don't do much for your audience.
Give your site advanced search capability. Visitors should be able to enter multiple search terms and get just what they are looking for. Keep track of their search strings and improve your content so that failed search strings will work in the future. Give them an easy way to contact you if they don't find what they want. The slickest way to do this is with a Call Me button; they click on the button, enter their phone number, and someone from the company calls them back within a few minutes.
Use a number-cruncher dedicated to supporting marketing efforts even very small companies can benefit from ongoing statistical analysis of their marketing efforts. Marketing people are not number-crunchers by nature, so they put off this kind of work. If your company is too small to hire a full-time marketing statistician, ask your bookkeeper to help out. The person should perform all or some of the following activities:
1. Track each lead through to its final outcome (sale or failure)
2. Research the sales failures, and present a report to the marketing and sales managers so they can fix the problem and avoid it with future contacts
3. Compile and make sense of information gathered in customer interview calls
4. Analyze search engine results, including search phrases and resulting click-through ratios
5. Run and analyze online surveys
6. Gather information about competitors, then create and maintain a competitive table that realistically compares the strengths and weaknesses of each company and product in your market.
There's simply not enough accountability in marketing. Knowing the real numbers can help you make intelligent decisions about where to focus your efforts. You'll be able to introduce some reality into your otherwise steady diet of anecdotal, vague, agenda-driven and emotionally charged input.
In our consulting work, we focus on two aspects of revenue generation: the market opportunities that a company should be taking advantage of, and the internal ability of the company to meet those challenges. Just a few pivotal changes can put the entire company on a new, revenue-producing track. None of this is difficult, but it does require character and discipline. You actually have to change what you are doing and make those changes permanent. The execution principles described in this article are some of the tools needed to make those changes. Today's buyers are savvy and skeptical, but they still have problems that need to be solved. They are more than happy to give money to the companies that will really, truly help them. It's your job to find out what those problems are, and to then direct your company so it can solve them - efficiently, thoroughly, and profitably.
(Posted by Kristin Zhivago, Zhivago Marketing Partners, Inc., October 1, 2002)