Don’t Disparage Your Competitors

I much prefer looking at competition as a set of parries and thrusts. Competitors are to be respected. Disparaging competitors only serves to undermine your case and is indicative of fear.
I much prefer looking at competition as a set of parries and thrusts. Competitors are to be respected. Disparaging competitors only serves to undermine your case and is indicative of fear.

I wanted to call attention to an excellent article written by Dave Kahle in Industrial Supply which aligns fully with my philosophy on B2B competitive strategy and sales training.  For nearly two decades I have emphasized the value of staying above the fray with a focus on a company’s unique value proposition and strengths.  While the easiest route is to disparage a competitor, it generally conveys fear and a lack of confidence in your own offering.  This tends to undermine trust in your company and its people.

“Disparaging the competition – speaking badly about the company or the individual salespeople, using little innuendos and side comments – all of this says more about us to our customers than it does about the competitors to whom we are referring. It reveals us as small-minded, petty, smug and far more interested in ourselves than we are in our customers.”

  • Dave Kahle, Author and Sales Trainer

Instead I have advocated only discussing competitors when directly questioned about them.  In that case, I have recommended a fast pivot where the rep recognizes a strength and then quickly segues back to their offering.  The strength should be real and non-trivial, but not applicable to your customer.  For example, if selling to an SMB, saying that the competitor offers highly customizable solutions for enterprises, but your offering is designed for small businesses with a straightforward user experience.  Such an approach is honest, differentiates yourself from the competitor, and avoids mudslinging.

Kahle offers several alternative, but equally valuable strategies for staying above the fray.  Instead of speaking directly about a specific company, generalize the competition.  Generalization “provides you a means of pointing out your distinctiveness without being negative about your specific competitors.”

Kahle also suggests posing statements in question form to help frame the prospect’s thinking;

Don’t say, “Y Company is a small local company that doesn’t have the systems or technology to support you in the long run.” Instead, say, “One of the questions you should ask of every vendor is this, ‘What technology and systems do you have in place to assure that you will be able to support us for the long run?’”

Another strategy is a feature list between companies, but I am not particularly fond of this approach for tech firms as the table needs to be assiduously maintained and it shifts the focus from value to features.   Furthermore, such lists aren’t tailored to the needs of individual prospects and prospects are likely to view such collateral as biased.  When I used to put together such tools, I avoided simple checklists and instead focused on workflow stages and framed the discussion as features and benefits in the context of each stage.  Each comparison was dated and I told sales reps that I would perform a just-in-time review of the tool if it was more than several months old.

“While we can’t change the competition, we certainly are responsible for our attitudes and behaviors toward the competition,” wrote Kahle.  “What we say and how we act about the competition can have a daily bearing on our bottom lines. An appropriate attitude and set of practices for dealing with the competition should be an essential part of every salesperson’s repertoire.”

It is easy to disdain the competition and crow about your product or service, but competitors should be respected.  They also have well qualified sales reps and some feature advantages.  “From the 10,000-foot-high perspective, if your competitors were as flawed as you think they are, they wouldn’t be in business, and your customers wouldn’t be buying from them,”  said Kahle.  “So, bury those attitudes of superiority, and cast off that disdain for the competition. If your customers didn’t think they presented a viable option, they wouldn’t be buying from them.”

Kahle suggests that if a company is truly focused on its customers’ needs, then competitive offers are irrelevant.  “Your mindset, from the beginning, is not a bit focused on the competition, but rather is 100 percent targeted to completely understanding the customer’s requirements. The conversation is not about how you compare to the competition, but rather how you meet the customer’s needs.”


DoD photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars, U.S. Air Force.  Public Domain.

Magic Johnson on Business @ Zoominfo Growth Acceleration Summit

I had the distinct pleasure of attending a keynote by Earvin “Magic” Johnson at Zoominfo’s Growth Acceleration Summit.  As the summit was held in Boston, there were numerous anecdotes about Celtic great Larry Bird and their rivalry, but the key business-related anecdote was  that you have to continuously improve.  Bird was a great competitor that forced Magic to up his game.  They were great rivals that made each other better and raised the quality of the game.

There were also a set of business insights as Johnson has taken his game discipline to business.  A few of his tips:

  • Find underserved markets and tailor your product to those markets — For Magic, the biggest underserved market was the inner cities.  He knew that there were few movie theaters in urban America even though the per capita theater spend of African Americans was high.  His first theater in LA had the 10th highest gross in the country.  He then convinced Starbucks that they should open coffee shops in marginalized inner city communities (and opened the first non-Starbucks owned shops).  Magic tailored the music and food to the community (e.g. sweet potato pie) and his stores had a higher gross than Starbucks owned locations.  The key to business success is “you have to know your customer.”
  • Out deliver — It’s not enough in today’s market to meet your customer’s expectations, you need to out deliver.  There is no lack of competition.  If you want customer retention, you need to out deliver.  If you want brand ambassadors, you must out deliver.  Magic Sodexho (food service) passed on its first Disney RFP and waited three years before bidding on the Disney Land contract.  His firm realized that due to the size of the park, many employees had little time to eat.  To support the contract, they developed kiosks and carts to bring food to the staff during their breaks.  This example of out delivering helped them win the larger Disney World contract when it came up a few later.
  • Culture is important — Magic emphasized the value of a winning culture whether helping bring back teamwork to basketball or encouraging principles such as everybody gets onboard, no hidden agendas, and do your job.  Furthermore, employees are better motivated if their company has a social mission such as bringing jobs and opportunities to Urban America.
  • Hire self starters and reward them — Look for young employees that come in early, leave late, and ask a lot of questions.  Then give them opportunities to grow with your company.  His COO began as a secretary and proved herself at each level.  He also emphasized the value of rewarding all employees and not falling into the trap of rewarding only the executives.  You can win the big contract, but if you only reward the execs for the victory, then you won’t have a team ready to out deliver.

Not many people have the pleasure of excelling in one field of battle.  Magic has had great success in both Basketball (Hall of Fame, 5 NBA Championships, 12 All Star Teams, NCAA championship, Olympic champion) and business.

Salesforce: There is a “crisis of trust” concerning data privacy and cybersecurity

A few weeks ago, I wrote about enterprise software vendors calling for an American version of GDPR with Microsoft announcing that it was building GDPR into its global product line as its standard privacy protocol.

On the Salesforce earnings call last week, CEO Marc Benioff observed that the software industry has been going through a “crisis of trust for the past six months” related to privacy and data ownership:

“From the European perspective the way they look at data is data belongs to you, it’s your data. Now for us at Salesforce, we understand that. We’ve had that position from the beginning. Our customers’ data belongs to them, it’s their data. I think in some cases, the companies that are start-ups and next generation technologies here in San Francisco, they think that data is theirs. I think the Europeans with GDPR have really flipped the coin, especially in advertising but in another areas saying hey, this data belongs to the consumer or to the customers, you guys have to pivot back to the consumer, you have to pivot back to the customer.”

Benioff once again called for a US privacy law similar to GDPR which provides “guardrails” around trust and safety. “This is going to help our industry,” said Benioff.  ”It’s going to provide the ability for the customers to interact with great next generation technologies in a safe way.”

Benioff also warned that when AI technologies are indistinguishable from humans, trust will also be an issue.

SalesLoft Named Top Midsize Workplace in Atlanta

One of the New Features Being Shown at Rainmaker 2018 is an Integrated Meeting Schedule.
One of the new features being shown at Rainmaker 2018 is an integrated meeting scheduler.

Congratulations to SalesLoft on being named the Top Midsize Workplace in Atlanta. The sales enablement firm added 120 employees over the past year to 220 headcount. SalesLoft is looking to add another 150 employees in 2018.

“SalesLoft’s core values are like motivational mantras: Team over self, bias towards action, focus on results, put customers first and glass half full.

  • Atlanta Journal Constitution

CEO Kyle Porter has long stressed the value of transparency at SalesLoft with Sunday evening company-wide emails and Friday all-hands meetings where staff are encouraged to ask any question.

“What I’ve constantly heard is just massive amounts of appreciation for being kept in the loop,” he said.

The firm also emphasizes recognition, cross-team interactions, career development, and teamwork. Chessboards in the lobby foster friendly competition. “It shows that salespeople can have a scientific mind and that engineers can have a relational mind, and that’s really the exact thing that we do for our customers, is we bring the science and relationships together,” said Porter.

SalesLoft is holding its annual Rainmaker conference in Atlanta this week.

Are We Really Selling Quarter-Inch Holes?

Black & Decker Cordless Drill (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Black & Decker Cordless Drill (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Sales and marketing often forget to focus on the unique value proposition they offer their customers.  They focus on product features instead of customer benefits.  There is an oft-repeated saying in marketing which captures this logic perfectly:

“People don’t buy quarter inch drills, they buy quarter inch holes.”

The electric drill was first developed by Black and Decker and patented in 1917 as a tool for their own production facility.  Interestingly, the firm only recognized the value of the tool for consumers when employees began taking it home.  Ironically, the tool often used to discuss the value of thinking broadly about use cases and customer needs was originally designed for a limited purpose, the Black and Decker plant, became an indispensable DIY consumer and industrial product.

A product/technology focus emphasizes the features of the drill and not the benefits of quickly making holes of specific sizes as needed, where needed.  Marketers need to translate many product features to a distinct set of customer benefits and roll them into a unique value proposition that differentiates their product in the mind of potential customers.

Understanding the needs of the customers is also important for the product and engineering teams.  Otherwise, they will view both the competition and the market too narrowly.  If you are selling quarter inch drills, you view your competitors as quarter inch drill manufacturers.  If you view your product as on demand tools for boring holes and attaching objects, you recognize a broader set of competitive and complementary products including bores, glues, solder, welding supplies, nails, screws, bolts, etc.  You would also recognize that electromechanical torque can be applied to screws, bolts, and nuts, expanding your product line into adjacent markets.

Focusing on product features is also a bad practice for sales reps.  As with marketing, emphasizing features prevents them from communicating the unique value proposition of your products and services.  If your sales reps are too often complaining about losing on price or the need to constantly discount off list price, then either your prices are too high or your sales reps are engaged in too much feature-speak and failing to communicate customer benefits and value.  Of course, these reasons are not mutually exclusive.  You could have two root causes to your pricing difficulties – your prices may be too high and your sales reps may be failing to communicate value.

Another problem with focusing on features is it treats your product as little more than a commodity.  A differentiated service is less subject to price erosion and heavy discounting.  This is one reason I tell my clients in the sales intelligence space not to compete on database size.  While there are benefits to larger databases, users aren’t usually purchasing big databases [feature], they are purchasing sales insights [value proposition] that make them more effective at building prospecting lists [benefit 1], qualifying leads [benefit 2], managing accounts [benefit 3], reducing CRM data entry [benefit 4], improving analytics [5], and selling deeper into organizations [benefit 6].  Thus, it isn’t the size of the company and executive files, but the breadth of data insights that help reps more efficiently and effectively sell.

So as you hold your 2018 sales kickoffs, make sure to communicate your new product’s value proposition to your salesforce.  Likewise, evangelize your company’s vision during new hire training, product road mapping sessions, and all hands meetings.  In the end, customers are interested in your value and how you benefit them, not RPM or database size.

Gartner Predicts Increasing Sales & Marketing Tension Due to ABM

Todd Berkowitz, Research Vice President at Gartner, sees Account Based Marketing (ABM) as increasing tensions between sales and marketing in the short-term.  While ABM has long been advocated as a facilitator of departmental alignment, he sees ABM as disrupting sales processes and generating friction:

“Between ABM and adoption of various new technologies and data types, there is a lot of disruption that is happening with regards to sales teams. Even if these changes are going to be beneficial to tech companies in the medium-term, and some of the “A sellers” get on board quickly with the changes, there are many sales reps that will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the new world. (This is why I always advise trying an ABM pilot with a select set of reps). So even if there is pretty good alignment and agreement between CMOs and sales leaders, don’t expect all reps to magically do what they are being asked to do. There needs to be an adjustment period, along with good sales enablement, before everyone plays nicely.”

So, while ABM will facilitate agreements in process, messaging, and metrics in the medium-term, it will generate resistance amongst sales reps unwilling to adopt new processes and tools or unconvinced of its value.  This friction is probably exacerbated by predictions of sales force reductions due to the implementation of AI and other information and workflow technologies.

WWII Era Poster (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)
WWII Era Poster (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Resistance to technological change has long been an issue.  Early in the Industrial Revolution, The Luddites sabotaged British plants, particularly cotton and wool mills.  While sales reps are unlikely to sabotage initiatives (or their careers), they may hesitate to learn new platforms or adopt new processes.  As such, the problem may be more akin to soldiering, the assembly line equivalent of reducing individual productivity to the level of the laggards on the line.  Frederick Taylor, the father of time and motion studies, was very concerned about soldiering and recommended piece work rates to create productivity incentives.  But sales reps are very attuned to incentives.  While they may be hesitant to adopt new technologies, they will do so if they help make them more efficient and effective at selling.  So long as sales reps are paid on a commission basis and long-term employment is tied to making quota, the level of soldiering should be minimal.

This isn’t to say that sales reps won’t resist learning new tools.  If they believe the time invested in such training is less than the incremental revenue for the lost selling time spent in training, then they will avoid training and learning new tools.  However, if they see others on their team benefiting from the new tools, they will not hold out long term.  Thus, tool training needs to be visibly supported by management with an emphasis upon the benefits to sales reps (e.g. less time spent on non-sales tasks and more time interacting with customers and prospects, improved account intelligence, improved account targeting and message timing).  With the proper incentives and information, resistance should be minimal.

To help ensure adoption, vendors should be looking to integrate solutions into CRMs, email, and mobile devices so that new tools are integrated into current workflows.  They should also be providing inline tool tips, initial training focused on their capabilities which provide high levels of efficiency and efficacy improvements, tool-based win stories, and usage tools for tracking training, usage, and ROI.  A few gamification elements may also be in order, but they should be organic to the product and not hokey.

Transformation (Not Digital) is the Key to Digital Transformation

Searches for Digital Transformation on Google
Searches for Digital Transformation on Google (Source: MIT Sloan Management Review)

George Westerman, principal research scientist with the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, wrote an excellent article on Digital Transformation titled Your Company Doesn’t Need a Digital Strategy.  His key point was that the true value in digital transformation comes from using digital technologies as the fulcrum for transformation not as the objective.  When focusing simply on a technology for technology’s sake, the return on investment is much lower.

In the digital world, a strategic focus on digital sends the wrong message. Creating a “digital strategy” can focus the organization in ways that don’t capture the true value of digital transformation. You don’t need a digital strategy. You need a better strategy, enabled by digital.

Westerman cautions that technology doesn’t provide business value in a vacuum, but only when fused with a business strategy that transforms a key aspect of your business such as product delivery (e.g. e-commerce), customer understanding (e.g. analytics), “radically synchronizing operations” (e.g. IoT), changing business models (again IoT), etc.  Thus, “technology’s value comes from doing business differently because technology makes it possible.”

For example, sales intelligence isn’t about providing reps with additional contacts or feeding them with business factoids so they sound smooth on calls.  It is about transforming sales and marketing processes by infusing relevant, accurate, and timely intelligence into sales and marketing workflows; aligning sales and marketing objectives; prioritizing activities; and making sales reps more efficient and effective at selling.

Westerman offers four strategies for digital transformation:

  1. Get Away from Silo Thinking — Focusing on a technology strategy (e.g. Mobile, Big Data) can be limiting and ends once the technology has been implemented.  A technology focus results in incremental improvements, whereas a business transformation strategy employs multiple technologies and management interventions.  You begin with the objective and then determine the digital processes and workflows for implementation.  “A customer intimacy strategy, for instance, uses mobile along with other digital technologies to constantly increase personalization, engagement, and satisfaction.”
  2. Don’t push the envelope too far, too fast — Overly ambitious strategies may be very risky while more mundane projects may be ignored.  Cutting edge technology may not be ready or implementation strategies may not be understood.  “Business leaders leave easy money on the table if they ignore incremental steps and pursue risky opportunities that may not be ready to pay off yet.”
  3. Don’t ask your tech leaders to drive transformation alone — This is an old piece of advice, but still relevant.  Early CRM projects often failed due to a top down approach that lacked support from sales and support teams.  The CTO or CIO needs to work with other C-level and mid-level executives that provide expertise in the industry and function.  For example, The CTO cannot transform sales and marketing by fiat, but must work with sales and marketing management for expertise, cooperation, risk mitigation, implementation, and communication.
  4. Build essential leadership capabilities, not just technical ones — Digital transformation isn’t a project but the ongoing development of enterprise capabilities and business value.  Digital leaders should “create a transformative vision, engage their people in that vision, and then govern strongly to chart a course across a whole portfolio of digital transformation efforts — some planned and some yet to be discovered.”

Not all problems require expensive cutting edge technology.  Many problems are still soluble through low tech solutions, small dollar investments into current platforms, and modified processes.  A focus on technology not only brings about silo thinking, but could increase complexity and cost.

I’m reminded of my high school Geometry teacher who said, “there are two ways you can kill a fly.  You can use a fly swatter or you can use a bazooka.”

I suspect the bazooka would be a lot more fun, but costlier and riskier.

That being said, there are also great risks in moving slowly or lacking a digital strategy.  Forrester highlighted the risks of being a Digital Dinosaur.  The author Nigel Fenwick noted that the digital predators are customer obsessed:

While all companies profess to put customers first, it’s clear from the data that executives at digital Predators care more passionately about the customer across multiple dimensions: In every customer metric we measured, these executives rated the importance of the customer higher than peers in transformers and dinosaurs – in short, they are not just customer obsessed, they are really, really customer obsessed.

And consistent with Westerman’s advice, customer obsession is a business objective, not a technology focus.  It is this deep understanding of customer needs that both informs the business and technology strategy and creates a defensible technology advantage.