Those who do a good job of selling information systems (and related services) know that the offering will likely be sold twice: first to customer decision makers, and then from the decision makers to other internal audiences. It definitely helps both the vendor and the customer when the vendor is aware of this reality, and follows a sales process informed by that awareness.
One company that I have seen do this well is Yammer (a “social enterprise network”). At least in my experience, Yammer understands how to help key business and IT stakeholders both (1) sell the solution to other stakeholders within the organization and (2) create winning strategies for implementing the solution by helping “sell” the solution to users throughout the enterprise.
Another company I have seen do well in this area is Thinking Cap (providing a learning management system and content authoring tool). Thinking Cap operates on a much different scale than Yammer, but it understands the same fundamental principles and applies them.
I could easily list other examples, but you get the point. You can create a feeling of partnership with the customer throughout the sales process by saying, “Hey, I know you’ve got to turn around and sell this to someone else. Your success depends in part on your ability to do that well. Here’s how we can help!”
In a previous article, I introduced the 10 rules vital to success in selling technology services. In this article, I’d like to offer some reflections on behavior in business development (or sales) interactions with prospective customers of IT consulting services.
Many information technology consulting firms excel at the “Here’s Why We’re Awesome” sales pitch. Few excel at making a genuine connection with the prospective customer. What do I mean by this? Simply put: your services are irrelevant unless they match the needs and aspirations of the customer. Therefore, business development interactions, particularly presentations, should follow this order:
- The briefest of possible introductions necessary to establishing your bona fides.
- A presentation/discussion of your understanding of the customer’s needs and aspirations. Make sure you get this right before proceeding further.
- A presentation/discussion of possible solutions relative to those needs and aspirations.
- Present and briefly review your qualifications for providing the solutions, if you have not already woven this into step number three.
- Discussion of next steps.
This process may be an oversimplification, but what I want to emphasize is the peril associated with spending the first 30 minutes of a 60 minute presentation on the “Here’s Why We’re Awesome” pitch, as do so many IT firms. During that 30 minutes you may irretrievably lose the opportunity to create a good connection. As a customer, I know that you can talk about you all day! My tolerance for gaining a complete understanding of your full consulting methodology (for example) is going to be much greater if it is expressed in the terms of my needs. It’s about me: my mission, my vision, my business requirements, etc. You’re just here to help—and hopefully to become a trusted partner at some point.
Another problem that I often observe is the failure to connect the terminology of the client with the terminology of the market. This is an important part of demonstrating that you understand the customer’s needs AND positioning yourself to be viewed as a viable partner. For example, I recently observed a number of SharePoint implementation firms fail to understand a customer’s use of “Monitoring and Evaluation” (M&E)—a term common among non-governmental organizations. Accordingly, those firms failed to relate that understanding to business performance management and business intelligence possibilities in SharePoint. If you want to make a connection, you need to understand the customer’s terminology and relate that to your own experience. Do your homework!
If you read and understand the article Selling Technology Services: 10 Rules Vital to Success, you will be well on your way. But also understand that you must apply those rules to create a real connection with the customer. Doing so will make you a better consulting firm and will help tip the scale in your favor when engaging with prospective customers.
Client: A successful government contactor listed in Washington Technology’s 2012 Top 20 Rankings, with nearly three billion dollars of revenue in 2011. Major lines of business include defense, intelligence, law enforcement, and healthcare.
Challenge: The client needed to brand a new software product that would both improve its “big data” analysis capabilities in serving government customers and provide an effective value proposition for entry into new commercial markets.
Solution: STA conducted brainstorming sessions with key client stakeholders to learn their perspectives on the product and its market position. We then performed an industry survey to identify and analyze competing brands. Armed with this information, we developed numerous verbal concepts for the brand, presenting a dozen refined concepts to the client for review. After the client had selected the top two names, we developed logomarks around each name and presented those marks to the client. The top two marks were cleared, and one was selected.
Results: The client selected a mark that they felt was both compelling and representative of the product—one that they could take into the market with confidence. The reason we were able to arrive at such a positive conclusion? STA used a very informative and structured process that both helped the client to understand key decisions and kept them on task throughout the various process steps.
Both as organizations and individuals, it is assumed that we will learn as we age. But do we?
Years ago, a senior colleague in marketing strategy once told me that he has a lengthy “not-to-do list”, which far exceeded the length of his “to-do list”. I could say the same thing. Having tried many things over the years, my not-to-do list is lengthy, and my to-do list has organized itself into a set of fundamental principles.
However, I meet many businesses that seem institutionally uncertain as to what they know, and how they learned it. Such organizations doom themselves to mediocrity; companies that learn the truth about themselves and about their markets typically experience the most growth.
Are we rigorous about learning from the past? Do we take the time to catalogue and make sense of our successes and failures? It is often said, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” But that is a glass half-empty perspective. In the pursuit of excellence, we should say, “Those who do not learn from history cannot repeat it.”
As a group, we in business should take some time to collect data, assess, and reflect. We’ve been around for a while—we’ve done a lot and seen even more.
But what have we learned?
To create sustainable business growth, a company needs to learn the landscape and then engineer the vehicles needed to navigate the terrain. Effective marketing strategy is directed at integrating market knowledge and expertise with people, process, and tools—creating an effective and timely response to the challenges and opportunities in the market. Market knowledge needs to be transformative, or else you will remain stuck in place.
This is why STA Tech Marketing emphasizes transformation (part of the See, Transform, Act model) as being essential to the branding and marketing process. Sure, you can give the visual and verbal expression of your company’s brand a public facelift—for example, by renovating your website or sales material—but at the end of the day the services you perform and/or product that you produce will determine how your brand is perceived in the marketplace.
We all know that a transformation process is where the hard work takes place. However, it is the most under-estimated and under-supported part of the marketing process. This is why STA and its partners work with executives and managers to help guide the transformation process. Our joint goal is to ensure that the necessary transformation takes place in a supportive environment, so that the company can attain the best long-term results.
In professional services you market yourself. Firms that understand the nature of professional service marketing also understand that each encounter with the client is a marketing event—not just a marketing opportunity (where marketing may or may not take place) but an actual event where marketing activity occurs whether or not it rises to the level of consciousness. Team members who do not or cannot understand this reality may not jeopardize your current book of business but they do limit growth opportunities.
Despite the increased role of the internet in professional services marketing, the average firm receives the majority of its leads through word of mouth or referrals. (This includes technology firms—STA’s primary client base.) Business usually moves by transfer of trust from one person to another. “I have experienced the services of this firm, and they have my trust, so I recommend them to you.” Even when your firm is identified through some other means (such as through an internet search), the best prospective clients will need to receive that transfer of trust in some way—by speaking to your other clients or by reading their statements.
In competitive professional services environments, differentiation is often achieved through experience: what it is like to work with your company on a day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year basis. The primary way that current clients understand your brand is through that experience. The primary opportunity to plant the seed for new business is within that experience—whether that new business comes directly from the client you already have, or from a referral to a new client.
This being the case, one of the most certain paths to growth lies in successfully building and developing your workforce—hiring team members that have well-rounded capabilities and providing marketing/communications training to all client-facing staff. The value of every client-facing team member at a professional services firm should be measured in three dimensions. First, does the team member have the expertise, experience, and discipline necessary to perform the work? Second, does the team member understand how communication is important to building and maintaining strong relationships? Third, does the team member understand how to identify and capitalize on new business opportunities?
For some firms it may seem an insurmountable obstacle to require that all client-facing team members measure high in each of these dimensions. However, in order to achieve sustained levels of growth in revenue, profit, and book value, you must acquire or build a high level of capability in these areas. Though it might not seem like marketing, this process is in fact the most fundamental marketing action that a growth-minded firm must take.
STA helps professional services firms to consider these matters in a variety of ways, including working with client executive teams to create business, brand, and marketing strategies—these create the context for evaluating team composition and development needs. We also assist in workforce skills analysis and by establishing guidelines and training for both internal and external communications.
Fear plays a major role in frustrating implementation of new information technology solutions. Often this fear is referred to as “change resistance,” but executive teams and information technology leaders must be careful to examine the cause of that resistance—to accept and come to grips with fears and associated emotional needs.
While some solution users won’t accept a particular change out of purely intellectual, reasoned principle, most of those labeled as “change resistant” are actually afraid—whether or not they are cognizant of their fear, and whether or not they can intellectualize that feeling and convey it to others.
To be afraid is not shameful—all people have fears and over the course of our lifetimes we must grapple with those fears to grow both personally and professionally. Significant changes in how we perform our work have the ability to impact our overall quality of life, including our relationships with others. Often when we are faced with such a scenario, it becomes a perceived potential threat—and the “fight or flight” mechanism starts to engage.
Attempting to address an emotional feeling or need with either a purely intellectual response or no response at all is a failure in either capability or responsibility. This can lead to failed IT solution implementations or adversely impact both the immediate and long-term ROI for the solution. Rather than ignoring the emotional component, you can proactively dispel fear and help solution users to embrace the change that will inevitably occur.
This opportunity begins with the information technology needs assessment, well prior to solution selection and implementation. Mature, outcome-oriented information technology project leaders use this opportunity not only to define current state and target state (performing gap analysis and developing a summary of functional requirements) but also to identify emotional needs, including needs that are the result of fears regarding the current solution as well as the new solution and its implementation.
The value of collecting these impressions/insights is realized in the ability to create one or more value propositions for the new solution that impact the user on an emotional level. Moreover, you can create messaging strategies associated with the implementation process that anticipate and address potential fear-based objections and emotional needs. The value propositions and messaging need to be used early and often so as to quiet the fight or flight response before it becomes engaged, opening the door to productive interaction with and around the solution as implementation moves forward.
Designing the most successful information technology implementations includes both understanding and addressing fears and emotional needs. This strategy accepts the reality that a large portion of the corporate team will first make a judgment regarding the solution based on emotion (whether hope or fear) and then shift their intellectual thinking to justify the emotion. It also more fully considers the whole person, leading to superior results.
Client: STA was engaged by an IT services firm in Washington DC to serve the needs of a client seeking to make communication and collaboration improvements for approximately 2,000 staff members located in 185 offices nationwide.
Challenge: The goal of the project was to work with the client organization’s internal communications team to select an enterprise social networking tool. STA led this effort, drawing on its expertise in marketing/communications and technology to assess the client’s needs. We then worked with the IT services firm to research and evaluate potential solutions.
Solution: STA designed and conducted a series of structured interviews with stakeholders at the national headquarters and state/local offices to learn as much as possible about the organization’s needs. During these interviews, STA learned that the need to communicate and collaborate in an online social setting extended well beyond the staff members of the organization, to a large group of service partners and customers. This increased the number of potential network users to more than 100,000. This finding escalated the strategic significance of the project, leading to increased executive project involvement at national headquarters as more departments were made aware of the project’s importance and strategic implications.
Results: The organization significantly expanded its viewpoint as to how effective use of enterprise social networking tools could improve outcomes across a variety of strategic initiatives and operational practices. Armed with this knowledge, it was able to make prudent decisions about the prioritization of features within the list of functional requirements. After evaluating a broad field of potential solution candidates, we were able to identify three options for the client to consider. After a careful review process, the client developed confident consensus around one solution candidate.
Client: The client organization offers a professional training and development certification for members that increases professional competency and leads to advancement opportunities.
Challenge: The competency model supporting the certification program had been updated, resulting in the need to redesign the program “products” based on the competency model, including a robust set of resources preparing learners for the program. In addition, the client also planned to provide the resources digitally for the first time, in the form of a website featuring a responsive design to accommodate learners on variety of digital devices (desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones). The design also needed to anticipate other steps in the technological evolution of the organization, such as learning management systems and private social networks.
Solution: Springboard International, a growing organizational effectiveness firm with expertise in performance and learning, was poised to win the project award but needed a partner with strong marketing/communications and technology expertise to round out its team. STA was identified by Springboard International as an important partner. We immediately integrated into Springboard’s team and got to work on this intense project featuring demanding requirements and rapid-fire deadlines. STA informed the team (including client stakeholders, Springboard’s internal team of strategists and instructional designers, independent learning/training industry experts, the web development contractor, and software vendors) with strategic insight and best practices for technology use for the learning resources design, development, and web production. We provided project leadership and kept communication about important technology issues open, positive, and straightforward—taking great care to make sure that all participants were on the same page.
Results: The partnership with Springboard resulted in a comprehensive and detail-oriented learning resources design that won approval and praise from the client. In addition to addressing the immediate need of redesigning the resources to correspond to the updated competency model, our recommendations anticipated a variety of future growth opportunities that will allow the client and the certification program to flourish long-term.
All differentiators have to be demonstrated. Some may be articulated first and demonstrated afterwards, creating emotional and intellectual resonance immediately through articulation and later confirming and deepening that resonance through demonstration. Others may be demonstrated first and articulated later, in which case typically the emotional resonance is created through the demonstration and the intellectual resonance by means of the articulation.
In industries where it is difficult to find differentiators of true distinction (including areas of information technology), common differentiators may be perceived as trite or cliché when articulated—simply because all (or most) competitors make similar claims.
In such cases, true self-discipline is required by a company that wants to grow, because it must focus consistently on excellence in the small details—and hence become known as the company that does common things uncommonly well. This is THE true differentiator, particularly in commodity laden industries, because the world is long on talk and short on the self-discipline necessary to consistently demonstrate how the clichés (complete with the usual superlatives) are actually true in some instances.
The task of demonstrating how common things can be done uncommonly well might not be glamorous, but it is an authentic and reliable path to achieving clear differentiation in the minds of discerning audiences, and achieving the business growth that you seek.
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