On Customer Feedback

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On Customer Feedback

The software market is so crowded with solutions that developers must get it right, and get it right fast. Going to market with a half-baked app (in industry parlance,  "minimum viable product") is a dangerous strategy. In fact, you're not likely to make it out of beta if you and your customers don't agree on what "minimum viable" is.

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The Telltale Signs your Startup has a Culture Problem

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The Telltale Signs your Startup has a Culture Problem

I've spent the bulk of my career helping make startups successful.  The failures I've witnessed exhibited shockingly similar root causes.  Right behind a lack of funding, a dysfunctional corporate culture can quickly disable a promising startup.  As if entrepreneurs don't have enough to worry about with payroll, product development, marketing, sales and operations, they also have to closely monitor their developing company culture.

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Think Like your Customers.

Every week I receive a lot of sales solicitations via email and phone.  Frankly, I get so many that the calls go to voicemail and email goes unread.  Like most buyers today, I'm busy and I don't want to listen to every pitch.  I'm usually focused on two or three "big" projects at one time, and everything else is an interruption.  In other words, I'm a normal B2B buyer in every sense.

If you are in sales and marketing, the best advice I can offer is to think like your customer.  Common sales advice tells you to learn the customer's pain on early calls and then pitch a solution.  Who is going to give you the time to learn their pain?  

Customers are not there to serve your needs, you are there to serve theirs.

This means you have a lot of homework to do when you are enter a new sales role.  Here are what I consider to be the minimum standards you need to meet before you can add value to a prospect and make a sale:

1.  Understand who your buyers are.  If your marketing department has not done this research, demand that they do.  For each role your company sells you, you need a detailed buyer persona that discusses the role, pain, needs and rewards this person seeks to do their job well.

2.  Ensure every customer-facing transaction adds value.  Even appointment setters need to add some value to a cold or follow up call.  Few things are more frustrating than a pitch where it is unclear what the "win" is for the prospect.  At the end of this first call, I should want to move on to the next call, not have to accept the next appointment just to get the basics.  This is one of the main reasons why your prospect is a no show to follow up calls.  At a minimum, every customer-facing person should be able to discuss three to five solid and measurable value propositions of your product.  

3.  Know your product.  At some point, many companies gave up trying to have salespeople understand the product.  This is perhaps, the single worst practice I see in today's sales climate.  If your company doesn't think you need to know your product, for the sake of your prospects and commission checks, please take it upon yourself to learn.  It's costing you and your company money if you must rely on other people to cover the technical and business benefits of your product.

Being serious about your sales career means taking responsibility for your education.  If your company can't or won't help you understand buyers, value and your product, learn them on your own.

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Don't Make these Critical Sales Mistakes

A former colleague called the other day and was utterly devastated over losing a big sale.  This was an important deal for him personally, and for his company. He was beating himself up over the loss and feeling like a failure.  No one wins every deal, so the best prevention against loss is to make sure you are paying attention to the details.
We did a little post-mortem analysis of this sale (an exercise that is both painful and highly valuable) and discovered several issues my friend failed to recognize in time to save the deal:

1.  There were more decision-makers in the cycle than my friend was aware of.  

This is extremely common reason complex sales fail to close.  As marketers, we spend a large amount of time understanding all the people might be in the buying cycle, and what their motivations might be.  We create content that aligns to their needs since people are incapable and unwilling of sorting through all of your content to find the one thing that applies to them.

In this case, the user buyer was influential and had budget, need and urgency, but did not have the economic buyer on board.  It's a red flag to me if the buyer is not willing to make introductions to other people who have influence or decision-making authority in the process.  Keep in mind how risk-adverse buyers are these days; they don't want to risk offering your solution to their company unless they have 100% confidence that it's necessary and beneficial.  Help the buyer build confidence with verifiable facts.  Offer guarantees if you can.  Offer free trials if your product offering supports that.  

Note on trials:  In a complex sale, never throw a trial over the wall with the hope the prospect will figure it out, see value, share results with their colleagues and drive your sales deal for you.  Assign someone to work with them, train them or provide whatever support is necessary for users to feel successful and come to their own conclusion that your product adds value. Make sure you go into a trial knowing how success will be measured.

2.  Several parallel efforts were underway in the prospect's organization to solve this problem.

The user buyer failed to understand that other people in his organization were also shopping for solutions.  This could have been avoided by involving the economic buyer early in the sales process to determine if it was possible to complete a sale, if the other vendors were offering something more compelling or if some creative packaging of the deal would have made it more appealing.

3.  The seller had failed to properly understand the use case the buyer had in mind.  

With a more complete understanding of the business and technical issues causing pain to the prospect the seller could have offered more relevant content related to the use case.  In this sale, the prospect saw a number of case studies how this product was used by other clients, which caused some confusion on the part of the buyer and the other people in the sales cycle.  The economic buyer ultimately thought the product would have to be "bent" to meet their needs.  Have the prospect walk you through their pain and processes.  Make sure the use case you offer deals with these issues, and only these issues.  More content is not better in this case.  You must offer specifics and resist the urge to pile extraneous content the prospect.

4.  A couple of strategic missteps.

Early in the sales cycle, the buyer was asking for references, use cases and documentation.  This is always a red flag that you are either not talking to the right person or that another agenda is afoot.  Sometimes the prospect is trying to learn as much as possible to educate themselves, sometimes they are looking for solutions to problems without having to buy anything.  These signals don't mean you can't make a sale, but they do indicate that you need to be strategic about how you manage the opportunity.  I'm all for buyers educating themselves, I just want salespeople to add value during this part of the cycle.

After this deal had been on the sales forecast for four months, the sales manager instructed my friend to try to motivate (bully) the prospect into an end-of-quarter close.  Nothing is more irritating to a buyer than a salesperson trying to push his own agenda.  Your prospect doesn't care if you need to meet quota, if it's the end of your quarter (unless you are offering a huge discount on something they've already decided to buy anyway.) Appearing desperate in sales is never a good idea; it undermines your credibility and puts you in a position of weakness.  Put more deals in your funnel and provide the support your prospect needs to close on their schedule.  In this case, the average sales cycle is nine months and pushing for a close before the prospect was fully engaged was a major strategic error.  It spooked the prospect and they ended up buying another vendor's product.

Post mortem exercises like this are valuable for training.  In a perfect world, this is an exercise that sales and marketing would conduct together.  It should be an experience of trust, looking for someone to blame is pointless since the entire company lost.  Looking for ways to do better is positive and motivating.  I know my friend will not make these mistakes again.  

What's happened in your sales life that you wish you had reacted to earlier?


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Generating Demand Starts in the Design Phase

People often ask me how they can generate demand for their product or service. Truthfully, there is no cookie-cutter approach that works for every type of business other than to be completely customer- focused.  We don't really "sell" anymore as much as we facilitate "buying."  By facilitating buying, I mean that as an entrepreneur your main job is to create a product that adds value to a crowded marketplace. Customer engagement arrives in a variety of ways.  Building something people really want or need is the best way.  Building a better (often much better) mousetrap is another way.

Most people (and businesses) appreciate tools that make their lives easier.  Responding to needs in the market is a shortcut to revenue.  Building something for a niche market, or building it because you think it's a good idea is a bigger risk.  If you are raising venture money, you can be certain that investors will be asking about your total addressable market and for strong evidence of your differentiation.

Be an observer of what works and what you find engaging in the marketplace.  For example, implementing a CRM solution just a few short years ago was something of a nightmare.  It was expensive, required a number of IT personnel and the business stakeholders had to be able to define what they wanted.  Have you ever sat down and tried to define your wish list for a product?  It's not easy and often you don't truly know what you want until you see what you don't want.  In fact, all of these issues have carried throughout the software industry as long as we've been building software.

Along come the clever folks at salesforce.com and they decide it would be a lot better if all of this important technology could be stored in the cloud and that their clients could focus on making money.  Salesforce.com can be implemented quickly and still tailored to the unique needs of most businesses. They now own the market for customer relationship management.  They've also engineered it to suit all the users of the platform -- managers get the reports they want, and it's easy for salespeople to use.

As you design your next offering, remember the best way to generate demand is by ensuring your products or services improve tasks your clients undertake every day.

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Marketing 101 - The Discovery Process & Understanding your Audience

I'm fortunate to be surrounded by exceptionally talented and brave people that don't just think up great ideas, but execute on them.  Each of my entrepreneurial friends has a special set of talents that makes them effective experts in their chosen field.  I am always happy when asked for advice on things outside their area of expertise.

The most common conversation I have with my entrepreneurial friends involves how to market their products and services.  If you Google "small business marketing" or "startup marketing" there will be so many conflicting opinions on how to approach small or growth-business marketing.  I am often contacted by my friends to validate what the last vendor they talked to told them.

As an entrepreneur, I'm sure it's not lost on you that there are vendors of everything you can imagine from buying links on "link farms" - (don't do it), yellow pages, guaranteed lead programs and on and on.  Knowing when you need a service or technology and how to leverage it is my area of expertise.

The easiest way to sort out what to do to effectively reach your audience is to do a bit of discovery on yourself, your audience and your competitors.

- Who is your audience?

In order to figure this out, examine your best customers.  Where did you find them - or did they find you?  What does their online footprint look like, or are they online at all?  Are they traditional media consumers or do they live in the social cloud?  Are there additional audiences or markets you can reach that look like your ideal customers?  I like to do this exercise on a white board or giant piece of paper.

If you don't have customers (an audience) yet, stay tuned for an upcoming post on getting your first clients.

- What are your competitors doing?

I am amazed that many entrepreneurs are unaware of their competition.  It's never a good idea to take a knife to a gun-fight so spending time getting to know your competitors is always a worthwhile exercise and can help you position your company more effectively.

If you are being outspent from a marketing perspective and you can't compete with deep pockets, find the place you can compete.  For example, position yourself as an expert and share expertise to build your following.  If your competitor is hard to work with or their pricing model is inflexible, be the vendor that is easy to work with and flexible.  If your competitor has a wildly popular offering, find out what segments of the market they are not serving and see if you have a fit for that audience.

Once you understand what your competition is doing and who your best customers are, it's much easier to strip away unnecessary marketing activities and focus your attention in the area where it will make the most impact on driving revenue.  Yes, revenue.

- On Message

I'm often asked about building a brand and how much emphasis is needed on that.  It is critical to develop understandable messaging and be consistent with it.  People are only confused if "who you are" changes constantly.  You have to give your messaging enough time to gel, and sometimes your best clients will end up repositioning you anyway.

For example, someone I respect greatly started a very nice fashion blog and styling service and her customers insisted that she extend her services into room styling.  If she had stubbornly held on to her original brand idea, she would not be able to exercise her considerable sense of style outside clothing, shoes and accessories.  http://feliciabiggins.wordpress.com/author/feliciabiggins/  This is how you grow a business, she's not off-message at all, just extending her talent into related areas.  (Smart lady.)

So, my advice is position yourself and message very clearly, but don't be so married to your brand that you're inflexible.  With respect to your brand, it's actually your "brand promise" that's the most important aspect of your messaging.

For a great example of messaging a brand promise, check out www.koreyhowell.com.  Korey is an amazing business headshot photographer in a sea of photographers, but she has so finely crafted and executed her brand promise of a great business headshot, that she has a steady stream of business.  What are people most concerned about when getting a photo taken?  Of course, it's that the photo won't turn out well and it will be a stressful experience.  Korey is so good at what she does, she can guarantee you'll get a shot you love.  Brand promise.  I can only imagine how much of her business comes from referrals.  I've probably told at least 50 people how great she is.  Combine referrals with a well-placed Groupon, social media, support for charities that she loves and a light outreach to the local corporate community, and her marketing is done.

- Cost

I'm the type of marketing person that actually tries to talk people out of spending money.  I am constantly talking startups out of spending money on yellow pages ads, paid search and other techniques that can quickly drain their reserves.  The next few posts will be around leveraging the low cost channels at your disposal and how to achieve the big company results you want on a shoestring budget.  Generally, my only exception to startup frugality is when you have VC money, a game-changing product, a small window of opportunity and the need to build massive market share quickly.  That situation requires a different strategy.  Do your homework and spend smart.  

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Adventures in Business to Business Cold Calling

Regardless of what you sell, you need to reach the right audience.  As a startup, you probably need to do that as inexpensively as possible.  You build a website, start a blog, sign up for Twitter and create a Facebook page... but it's a slow process to build critical mass and you'd be right to feel a strong sense of urgency about generating revenue.  This is generally the time when you start buying lists and the sales force is told to cold call.

I believe B2B cold calling can work.  I've seen it work.  I've witnessed cold calls that launched a sales cycle that eventually turned into multi-million dollar contracts.  I've also been on the receiving end of hundreds of "crash and burn" sales calls.  On average, I get three to four "crash and burn" sales calls per day, and those exclude the ones that were filtered before they got to me.  Even when I may have a legitimate interest in saving money on office supplies, when the cold call is so bad, I quickly decide your company is not worth my time.  Think of a cold call as a blind date.  You need to make a good impression.

The problem with cold calling is the approach companies (or salespeople) take to it.  I would rather have a salesperson make three good calls a day than a 100 blind, misinformed and mismatched attempts.

Anatomy of a bad cold call.
 - Not knowing who you are asking for.
 - Lying to get to the person you need.
 - Mumbling, bad grammer, giggling and other bad telephone behaviors.
 - Not understanding the business you are calling.
- Not valuing the time of your "target" by making sure you have something of value to offer.
 - Underestimating the intelligence of your target, their inability to do a Google search or check reviews.

The good news is these cold-call snafus are preventable.  Write yourself a script, but this time instead of asking who buys this and who is in charge of that, write your story around what you have done to help a company exactly like the one you're going to call, make it the best 30 second story in history.  The story should include the problems to be overcome, how you resolved them, what you saved the company and so on.  Practice it until you can deliver it naturally.  Record it in an audio version and play it back.  If you were in your target buyer's shoes, would this story be compelling to you?  Would the voice you hear, earn your trust?

Don't rush through this; understanding the value proposition of what you are selling is essential.  This effort naturally helps define who you should call.  Don't attempt to reach a senior executive in a large company until you've tested this story in dozens of companies and fine-tuned your approach.  You will not get past a gatekeeper until you have truly refined your message.

The next step is to research companies in dozens of free sources like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, Glassdoor and so many more.  Once you know something about the company and the people, you are in a better position to understand how you might be able to help them.

Prepare!  Once you have someone on the phone, tell your story and ask if you can schedule 15 minutes of their time to discuss your offering and how it's helped one of their competitors solve a difficult problem.  It's hard to resist what sounds like free competitive intelligence, many executives will bite at this offer unless what you are pitching is so far off that they don't care.  If they seem engaged, it's then OK to have one or two carefully crafted probing questions, solely for the purpose of determining need.  I would not try to qualify at this point, you are still demonstrating your value, it's all about them.  Pay rapt attention to how your contact answers those questions because you will incorporate their comments, issues and problems into your next conversation.  You've shifted your approach from cold calling to warm calling.

Once you have the second call, you're on your way.  Now is a good time to start researching the company's decision makers and influencers.  The more expensive your product, the more of these people that you will have to get on board.  Don't be lazy and ask your contact to provide all that info, it will run off even a serious buyer if you turn the conversation into qualifying them before they are emotionally on-board with doing business with your company.  Each and every contact should build trust and add value.

By now, you're probably hoping for an example of an effective cold/warm call.  Here's one that worked on me:

The person had done their homework and knew I was the VP of Marketing for a software company that they wanted to sell an IT product to. The IT staff was besieged by these calls and wouldn't take any vendor calls.  The vendor carefully practiced their story and called me and simply said this... "I am hoping you can help me.  I sell a great product that I think could save your company a lot of software development time but your IT people won't talk to me.  Can I have 30 seconds of your time to critique my pitch?"  Critique your pitch?  Marketing folks LOVE to critique pitches.  I was all over that.  It was a mediocre pitch, but the person was so sincere and compelling that not only did I critique the pitch, but had them try again with a revised version and then I put the vendor on hold, walked over to IT and suggested they take the call.  They did, we (eventually) bought and everyone was happy.

Cold calling can work... but warm calling will work better and faster.

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"Outstanding" is the New "Normal"

In this economy, service is more important than ever.  I've noticed that companies have responded in two distinct ways to the current economic climate.  One way involves layoffs and having employees do more with less.  This is certainly understandable for companies who are just starting out and are managing cash flow carefully.  The risk, however, is that service slides if not made a priority. There is no forgiveness for poor service in this economy.  None.

I see the customer service slide occurring in companies that are inwardly focused - meaning that they spend more time and energy on what is going on inside the company than they do on customers, prospects or partners.  It's fine to be somewhat internally focused when you are early in development.  The minute your company starts producing revenue, it's time to make everyone's focus on external influences - competitors, customers, prospects and partners.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are companies that make service a priority and leverage this as a competitive advantage.  These companies may have made the same cutbacks, but the focus in the company is external.  They don't spend time arguing over petty details.  They build a high level of trust inside their companies.  They set clear goals and priorities that center on adding customer value.  Most importantly, they have a relentless and unyielding effort toward providing good service.

The internet is fantastic at exposing poor customer service.  A five minute search effort before you do business with a company could save you a lot of grief or make your life much easier.  I am amazed when I find companies that don't understand the value of building a business around happy customers.  I don't think they realize how much business they lose or that their prospects have the ability to easily check their references.

This morning I was on LinkedIn and read a comment that said a business should not use social networking -- because it would give customers a chance to vent.  To me, a company with that thinking won't be around much longer.   AT&T Wireless is a good example of a company that gets a lot of flack for network problems but they make effective use of social networking anyway.  Join their Facebook group and read some of the comments.  AT&T Wireless users can be pretty hostile.  AT&T takes the heat and responds graciously.  They can't make everyone happy, but they are not running and hiding either.  AT&T is such an interesting example of social networking since they have a huge customer base and a high percentage of early adopters -- exactly the type of people most likely to speak out when they are irate.  I applaud AT&T for the effort and wish more companies would follow suit.  This is the thinking that leads to improved customer relations and for forgiveness when issues do appear.  As AT&T builds out its network, they publicly announce it to the cheers of people in that area and to the pleas for expanded service by the folks who live elsewhere.   They repeatedly demonstrate that they listen and are taking action.  The alternative is to hide… and watch their customers jump ship.

There is more competition in business than ever.  Competition forces specialization and fosters innovation.  Every company would be well-served to examine its business model and determine the things that can be done very well… and let go of the rest.   Focus on making customers happy and when the economy improves, you'll be far ahead of your competition.  Give your customers reasons to keep coming back.

If you're just starting out, engineer good service into your business processes.  If you are generating revenue and have angry customers, fix it now… before it's too late.


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What we can Learn from Microsoft and Apple Product Launches

When Microsoft Office 2007 was released a few years ago, my husband and I were invited to a launch event at our local convention center.  It was exactly what we expected… live product demos showcasing new features, thousands of people in attendance, and goodie bags loaded with free software.  Microsoft pulled off a highly professional event and managed to make office productivity software seem exciting in a time when many people saw no reason to upgrade from Office 2003.  This event was replicated in dozens of cities around the country.  Microsoft's goal was to make sure IT people and enthusiasts had access to the software with the hopes they would push upgrades out to their organization.  Years later, and I still run across a majority of people using Office 2003.  This begs the question… is a high-end product launch worth it?

When Windows 7 launched, I received no invitations for a public product launch.  Instead, they  saved millions of dollars of that cost and asked Windows users to host "house parties."  No doubt you've seen the video, it's rather ridiculous and that led it to go viral.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1cX4t5-YpHQ

The cost of this to Microsoft was negligible in the big scheme of things.  They sent a copy of Windows 7 Ultimate to the house party host along with some generic streamers, banners and some suggested party games.  They outsourced this entire operation.  Did house parties drive adoption?  The effort was aimed squarely at end-users.  Most consumers will wait to buy a new PC that has Windows 7 preloaded so Microsoft has the challenges of turning out a solid product and making it attractive enough that someone is inspired to buy a new PC.  Would house party hosts be able to carry forward Microsoft's critical messaging? Probably not.  
Microsoft then built retail stores, probably with the thought that if it works for Apple... yet, the products are still not very interesting and end-users don't replace their hardware and operating system all that often.  Microsoft stores are empty, while Apple stores are packed to the rafters.  When Office 2013 was released, nary a whimper. 
Meanwhile, Apple announces products during one hour live keynotes that scores of bloggers and reporters cover live and in real-time.  A couple of hours after the announcement the video is available for download in iTunes.  Without exception, there is a media frenzy with this approach… mostly because Apple makes interesting products, has a loyal following and has an outstanding pitchman as their CEO.  The cost of this effort runs into the millions and takes months to organize.  The beauty of it is that the Apple rumor mill speculates wildly ahead of time, adding fuel and excitement to whatever announcements are being made and often creating lines at the Apple Store.

If you sell a technology product for business, you must have both IT and end-users on your side.  I see so many companies fail because they have ignored the market and the needs of their client base.  Companies with weak product development alienate customers by forcing upgrades with end-of-life announcements or by raising the cost of support to a painful level.  The focus of your product work should ensure the functionality is what users need and that you've eliminated any major obstacles to upgrading.  This includes making products backward compatible, easy to install, stable, with a low total cost of ownership and so on.    End-users want functionality that makes them more productive and their jobs easier.  This is where an outstanding user interface designer is essential.

It's not always about packing in a lot of new features…sometimes customers just want what they already have to work better.  It's up to us as to provide legitimate and compelling reasons to upgrade.

So, if you're gearing up for a product launch, spend some time to consider the following:

- What audience must we reach?
- Who are our early adopters and major influencers?
- What media attention must we capture?
- What messages does the audience need to grasp?
- Who is the most compelling person to deliver the message?
- What are we offering that makes a behavioral change or upgrade vital to our customers?

In addition to the standard market research you must do for any product development, the answers to these questions will help you engineer a successful product launch.


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Maximize Value in your Customer Email Campaigns

Your customer list is among your company's most valuable assets.  By signing up for your list, they are expressing curiosity and/or trust in your offering.  Don't let them down.  Your list is your gold, so treat it with the care it deserves.

Before anything else, make the goal of every outbound email to provide value to your client.

Think about the email you receive that you hate.  Why do you hate it?  Chances are, it falls into one of these categories:

1.  You can't immediately recognize the sender or subject.
2.  It's not from a retailer but includes a value-less sales pitch.
3.  It's loosely related to something you already receive and an obvious clue they got your name from another vendor.
4.  You didn't sign up for it.
5.  It's "broken" in some way.
6.  The message adds no value.  For example, you live in an apartment and someone is trying to sell you vinyl siding.
6.  There isn't a relevant "Call to Action."

On the day you send your email campaign, every person on your list will receive a lot of other offers.   Here's how to improve the chances of yours being the one they read and take action on:

  1. It's clear who it is from.  Something in the "from" line conveys relevant meaning to your list.  Avoid generic senders like "me, customer service, postmaster" - these can be captured by spam filters.
  2. The subject line is relevant to the value added, for example "10 Tips for Reducing your Tax Burden" sent to a list of business people.  I recommend running possible subject lines through Spam Assassin and split testing a couple of different ones to your list.  
  3. The offer to buy products or services comes after the value but there is a clear call to action, for example "Sign up for our next class on tax savings for small business."
  4. Use a reputable email service provider.  You must build trust with your list so they need to have an easy way to opt-out of your list, forward the email to someone else or change their subscription.  The opt-out process should be immediate.  The more steps someone has to go through to leave your list, the angrier they will be.  And, you need to be compliant with the CanSpam law, even if everyone else isn't.
  5. If someone replies to your email with a complaint, resolve it promptly.  Make sure your subscribers know that real people are behind the email and they are valued as a member of the list.
  6. And… test… test your email in various email clients and browsers.  It may look great in Firefox 3 and IE7 but it could be a disaster in another browser or email client.  I like MailChimp's Inbox Inspector.  Submit your email to the inspector and in an hour or so, you'll have a great report on how it looks in a wide selection of email clients.  It's a small investment to make to deliver a better email.  
  7. Provide a feedback link in the email.  You never know when someone will give you an excellent content idea.
  8. And the most important tip, segment your list by product or service and only send people content that is relevant to their needs.  

It's challenging to communicate with clients and prospects because humans are blasted with more information in any day that we can possibly address.  Now, more than ever, the content of your communications needs to be high quality and client-focused.

If you need some inspiration, here are a few newsletters I receive personally that I think add value to their clients and prospects:

Music:  iTunes - New Music Tuesday
Cooking:  All Recipes - Daily Dish
Web Development:  Sitepoint Community Crier

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How to Mess up a Product Launch

Dyson, known for its innovative vacuum cleaner technology, sent me an email late last week as a tease for an upcoming product.  It pointed me to a video on their website that held few clues as to what the new product might be… and frankly, was not that interesting.  I'm a fan of Dyson so I thought I'd give them time, and hoped there would be some leaked info that would spice this launch up… but the product launch went downhill from there.

Here's the copy from the email:

"Sometimes the best way to improve an old technology is to completely change the way it works. In 1993, Dyson engineers created the first vacuum cleaner to use cyclone technology instead of bags – because bagged vacuums don’t work properly.
Now we’ve turned our attention to another familiar device - and made it work better by removing something you might have thought was essential. This is a new machine for Dyson. It won't be launched for a few more days, but you can get an idea what it might be on our website."

Several hours later, CNET has a "First Look" at this new product… and it's too short of a timeframe between the would-be viral tease and the when we learn what the actual product is.  There was not enough time to generate any buzz.  Worse, CNET is known as a source for computer and tech news and this product was not exactly in their wheelhouse. And, CNET has an enormous early adopter following and the ability to make or break a product before it even ships.   CNET, in my opinion, tells it like it is.  During his video review, David Carnoy called it "a neat parlor trick" and looked as if he might be having a challenge to keep a straight face.

Turns out this game-changing product is a table fan without blades.  It's other claim to fame is the ability to create 15x the airflow of your normal big-box store table fan.  Dyson has given it the not-so-catchy name of "Dyson Air Multiplier Fan."  OK, a fan without blades is pretty cool and it's safer for kids and pets.  I was momentarily back on board with their plan… until CNET dropped the price and let it hang in the air.  This marvel of engineering, otherwise known as a table fan is… $330 USD…. or roughly 7x the cost of just about any other table fan.

Oh how I would have enjoyed the product development meetings.  Who could keep a straight face in the room when the product manager announced that they were going to market a $330 room fan during the worst economy in 4 decades?

Now I have nothing against Dyson.  I own one of their first generation "Animal" vacuums and aside from normal wear and tear, it has been an outstanding product and well worth what I paid for it.  I would not hesitate to buy another one.  But… it did not cost me $300 more than a comparable vacuum.  It was in the same price point as competing products.

And Dyson has other issues.  Sharper Image, the likely candidate to sell the premium Dyson Air Multiplier Fan, is out of business and Dyson's normal US sales channel includes stores like Best Buy.  The retailers are not going to be too excited to give up precious shelf-space for a $330 fan.   I've yet to see their hand dryer anywhere in the wild.  So, I suspect a lot of R&D money is going into products that may be brilliantly engineered but are what I like to call "million dollar solutions to a five dollar problem."  This isn't sustainable business behavior. 

And, it's no longer summer in the Northern Hemisphere, so an October launch for a fan makes little sense if your biggest market is the US.

I am all in favor of building a better mousetrap.  Without innovation, we would still be driving Model A's, but there has to be a business model that can support innovation.  If the cost to innovate is so steep that it makes you noncompetitive, all you are is the early adopter who will soon find another company has taken your idea and figured out how to execute it at a competitive price point.

I want them to succeed, so I'm hoping as time goes on we will learn it runs on air, reduces greenhouse gases, or can cool an entire house…. something, anything, to justify a $330 price point other than just being a conversation piece.

The moral of the story is that radical innovation still needs to have a sustainable business model.  By all means, get to market as quickly as possible, but make sure you have a product people want at the right price point.

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How to Find your Company's Greatest Salesperson

A few weeks ago I experienced a disastrous sales call.  The salesperson was unfamiliar with his product and was lying to cover his ineptitude.  He was also pushy and demanding.  It was pretty obvious that this was not a successful salesperson and his management had designed a process that was ineffective, if not fraudulent.  As the prospect, I could not get a word in edgewise and none of my questions were answered effectively.  The salesperson's behavior seemed to indicate that if he kept talking long enough, and was pushy enough, he could wear me down and get a sale.  In fact, the opposite happened.  I got up and left and will never to return to that company.   During that call, I observed some really egregious sales mistakes - lying, arrogance, ignorance of his own product, a "one size fits all" sales pitch, failure to listen… I could go on and on.  If I could have videotaped the meeting it would have served as a brilliant documentary of what not to do.

The experience was so off-putting that I could not help do a mental inventory of all the salespeople I had worked with (and bought products from) and couldn't help but think about the differences between the successes and the failures.

Value-Added

The standout salespeople I have known are passionate about their product, their industry and their prospects.  They study constantly, add value on every call, and work tirelessly to be subject matter experts.  No one understands better than they do that their credibility is directly tied to their knowledge.  They actively solve problems for their clients.  They represent solid products that offer good value.

Superstar salespeople sell on value and benefits.  They can answer feature questions but they don't lead off on a feature/functionality sale.  They know that puts them into the "me too" vendor bucket and lowers their margin.  The best salespeople craft deals that are win-win for their company and their client and they are not afraid to walk away from deals that would ultimately harm their company.

Superstars also know the organization they're selling to.  They simultaneously build relationships with influencers and decision-makers.  They don't alienate influencers by going over their heads when told "no" because they have built the right relationships early in the process.

Service Driven

Great salespeople are great listeners.  They listen more than they talk and they never interrupt a prospect.  They clarify their questions once the client has stopped speaking.  They promptly follow up on any action items.

If a mistake is made or the client has an issue, a great salesperson owns that problem until it's resolved.  They never avoid calls or hand the client off.  They don't have to because they did not over-promise or lie in the first place.

Always Improving

Continuing education is important to professional salespeople. Superstars don't think they know it all, they want to learn something new or do their job better.  They prospect willingly in addition to whatever leads they are being provided. They use the right tool or technique for the job and match the prospect's behavior and style when selling.  Superstars are acutely aware of people's emotions and act accordingly.

As a business owner or sales manager, these people make your job easier. Not only do they close more deals but you never have to fight with great salespeople to be team-players.  They follow up on leads they are given.  They don't lie about their pipeline. They efficiently qualify prospects and put their time and effort into the best opportunities.  Superstars actively partner with the other resources in their company to better serve the client.  When you for a report, they deliver it without complaining.  They come into your office for help resolving client issues -- not to complain.  They serve as an outstanding resource to the rest of the company and truthfully discuss client needs, pricing, the overall market,and issues in their deals.  They work to make sure all of their clients are satisfied and good references.  They often have more referral business than other salespeople in the company because their clients genuinely enjoy working with them.

Finding the best

Why is finding outstanding sales talent so challenging?  Sometimes past employers can be blamed for instilling dysfunctional behaviors like lying to close the sale and high-pressure tactics.  If previous management was heavily metrics-driven, it can result in salespeople under so much pressure that they will artificially inflate their pipeline to buy time.  Most salespeople interview well enough to sell themselves and can give the hiring manager enough confidence cut some corners in the hiring process.  This is so dangerous for startups and small companies because they can cost you lost sales and a damaged reputation in the time it takes to determine they are a bad fit.  Beware of candidates with a very high base salary.  I've seen dozens of technology salespeople over the years coast on their base salary and not put in much effort to generating revenue.  Once discovered, they move on to a new company and often blame the old one for having a bad product, bad management or a lack of marketing.  If a candidate brags of a "magic rolodex" of prospects, I would ask to see it; they may well have a lot of contacts, but that doesn't mean those people will necessarily buy from them or be a fit for your product.

When I interview salespeople, I ask for references ahead of time.  When we meet I ask about their best customers - why the deal was good, why the client was happy and so on.  The follow-up question is if I can speak to that person as a reference.  Was that person on the list they gave me? I see if the salesperson includes a mix of clients and former employers as references.  I use competency-based questions to understand how well the candidate understands the products and services he/she has sold and what I am selling.  I spend a lot of time on questions designed to see if the person can sell based on value vs. functionality or price.   I see how well they can handle common objections.  When an applicant is from a competitor, I do twice as many reference checks to ensure I am not hiring my competitor's problem.

Some of the best salespeople I've hired or worked with over the years were not salespeople when they applied for the job. I've found these folks to have fewer bad habits to correct; and because they have not developed problematic behaviors, they are often appreciated more by prospects than the person who has been selling their entire career.  Time and time again, I've seen them outsell the veteran salespeople because they listen better, they work harder and they add more value to the client.  In this instance, I look for people who have good communication and people skills, sound decision-making and the ability to learn my product or service.

So, next time you're hiring, don't immediately hire from your competitor and discard applicants not in a sales role - someone from customer service, marketing, inside sales or even engineering might turn out to be your superstar salesperson.

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Promoting your Small Business with Limited Time and no Money

One of the greatest entrepreneurial challenges is how to market your business without going broke.  Perhaps it's my background in marketing but I think it's the #1 thing on any entrepreneur's "to do" list. 

The reason is simple.  It doesn't matter how great your product or service is if your prospects are buying from your competitor because they don't know you exist.   So make a promise to yourself that you'll spend at least 30 minutes per day to market your business. 

Before you start:  Do some competitive analysis online (and in your area if you have a storefront) - make sure your product or service is competitive and priced right.  Understand who your target market is and research to see how and where you can find those people. This is work that marketing professionals spend a lot of time on.  There is no sense investing your precious time and money targeting the wrong group of buyers for your product.  Document this and keep it near your computer so you're constantly reminded who you are looking for.

Step 1:  Collect an email address from every prospect and customer.  In order to have them agree to give you their address, offer something useful in exchange like knowledge, hints & tips, coupons or discounts on services. 

Step 2:  About once a month, send something useful to your list.  Based on the type of business you have, you'll have to determine the frequency that is right.  Consistency is important. If your space involves frequent small purchases, I'd aim for once or twice a month, generally not more.  Make your audience the focus of your message.  Concentrate on providing outstanding and useful content.  I often use a service called Mail Chimp to send messages to my list.  [Note that I don't receive compensation from them, or anyone else in this article, I just love the service.]  If your list is smaller than 500 and you send fewer than 3000 messages per month, the service is free.  Yes, free.  Who doesn't love that? For bigger lists, pricing is quite nominal and I find the service very reliable and  robust.  No programming is required to use it, if you're not the creative type, you can quickly customize one of their templates to meet your needs.  They also have online video tutorials to walk you through it.  If you do like design, they give you a lot of flexibility to build what you want.  Best of all, Mail Chimp takes care of the reporting and tells you which emails couldn't be delivered, which were opened and what links were clicked.  These stats are invaluable in measuring your promise.  Try to come up with a great subject line so people will want to open your mail.  They get an A+ from me.

Step 3:  Sign up for LinkedIn, Twitter, and possibly Facebook.  Again, this depends on who you sell to and what you sell.  If you are involved in business to business, LinkedIn is a must and you may find Twitter helpful.  If you have a storefront or consumer business, you may have luck with Facebook.  Do a Google search to see if you can find other social networks relevant to your business.  Participate in the discussions and groups.  Again, don't promote yourself but provide value to the other members and they will naturally look you up.   One word of caution here, don't over-network.  You could easily spend all day on it and not complete other projects. 

Step 4:  If you serve local customers through a storefront, make sure your business is listed in the local listing services at Google, Bing, Yahoo, and others as necessary.  Most of these allow your customers to leave reviews.  Encourage that by providing a coupon or discount for their next purchase.  Good ratings help keep you on track and give prospects the confidence to buy from you.  Sign up at the links below: Google -  http://www.google.com/local/add/lookup?welcome=false&hl=en-US&gl=US Yahoo - http://listings.local.yahoo.com/ Bing (MSN) - https://ssl.bing.com/listings/ListingCenter.aspx

Step 5:  If you need some basic design services for business cards, letterhead, etc., try your local printshop.  I'm a big fan of building relationships and buying local.  You should be able to find a local printer who can help with design services.  If not, check out us.moo.com for low-cost options and fast delivery.  On the issue of websites, it's great to have one but you have to spend some time optimizing it for search or it will have limited traffic.  The tools to build websites are plentiful and even someone with limited or no programming experience can build a site.  When you are new in business, many people will contact you offering to build your website.  Keep in mind that without traffic, a website is essentially useless.  Make sure anyone you hire to do this can put in some basic code called tags and your content is high quality and informative.  A website is a longer term investment and too many web designers sell them as the be-all and end-all.  This leaves small business owners disappointed and frustrated.  Before you hire a web designer, spend some time researching search engine optimization so you can have a better conversation with any potential site designers.  These are my favorite SEO/SEM sites: www,sempo.com (an organization for SEO/SEM) www.highrankings.com (SEO/SEM consultant, great content on the site) www.bruceclay.com (another SEO/SEM consultant) www.searchenginewatch.com (lots of great educational content) www.seotoolset.com (great site for do-it-yourselfers) http://www.wordtracker.com/ (helps you choose keywords for SEO/SEM)

My final caution is to beware of people selling search engine marketing and/or optimization services.  There are some great technicians out there who get results but there are many who just take your money and may get you blacklisted through unscrupulous techniques.  I saw at least one paid ad this week that was just ridiculous and attached to the entirely wrong keyword.  The company paying that vendor is being taken for a ride.  Unfortunately, this is all too common.  Clicks can be expensive.  No one can guarantee you'll be on page one of search results, regardless of what they tell you.  This is a huge subject and I'll be writing more about it later.  If you're hiring someone today, check references and the BBB and sign contracts that pay for results.  Don't agree to just give a vendor money every month with no guarantee.  Finally, be consistent and give your marketing effort time.  Marketing isn't a faucet you turn on and the results rush out.  We wish!  It takes time, persistence and creativity. If you have a good product or service at the right price, and you target the right buyers, you will be able to build your business.

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Software Developers Take Note...

When I went to work for my first software company, a division of General Electric, software was an elitist industry and many products ran into the millions of dollars to buy and deploy.  The biggest choice at the time was which hardware and OS you'd buy to run your expensive custom stuff.  The immaturity of the technology spawned an entire systems integration industry and made complex bits of code called APIs and middleware necessary to duct tape things together. 

Once I was invited to an 8 hour meeting to discuss a custom feature a client had asked for.  The client was correct that the functionality was useful but engineering was designing a million dollar solution to a five dollar problem.  As you can imagine, the client didn't want to fund a big pile of spaghetti code to get this tiny, but necessary, feature and resented having to call us when they wanted something new or different.  Fast forward to today and many software companies behave like the world still works that way. 

A subtle shift is occurring and there is some nice maturity creeping into our industry in the form of tools anyone can use and easily customize.  It's early in the process, but today's technology shows great promise for tomorrow's large-scale enterprise market. 

Every company needs tools to build and maintain their website, social networking presence, run accounting, track inventory and so on.  These are common business problems and there are countless solutions to solve them; and yet business still struggles with finding affordable, high quality tools that won't drive their budget into the ground and their employees crazy. 

Here's how much things have changed:  just a few years ago, email marketing solutions were as much as $40,000 per year and a bear to use.  Today's email solution is a service you can buy online with a credit card for $20 per month.  Anyone can use it and build an attractive outbound marketing campaign in just a few minutes.  The provider gives you all of these wonderful stats you can use to measure your success.  And these tools are accessible to anyone who has a browser.   [Of course, they also mean your inbox is full, but you get the idea.]  Software is democratizing.

So, here's my advice to business software developers:

- Spend some time researching your market and prospective clients. Ensure your solution will meet their needs and is a better mousetrap than the one they already have.   If you're short on ideas, find a friend who works in an office and ask if you can see what they use to do their job (get permission from management).  You will be amazed how clunky and unproductive some business applications are.
- Deliver your solution and price it in a method that makes sense to your prospects.  If potential clients are not technically savvy, use a SaaS model and hide complexity away where it won't affect users.
- Complexity does not equal sophistication.  Have a relentless focus on building elegant solutions.
- Take security seriously.  Don't be the guys known for a security hole that allowed a hacker to steal all the accounts.
- Figure out the support and pricing models early in development the process.  If you take a lot of customer support calls, it kills your margin.
- Architect from the ground up for easy configuration.  Your goal should be that systems administrators can be trained and stand on their own quickly and any end-user can make your product work with a minimum of training. 
- Resist the temptation to build professional services into your model.  Fewer and fewer clients are willing to endure a long and/or expensive deployment.
- Invest in an outstanding user interface designer and make the goal that routine actions are no more than a couple of clicks away.  There are so many products that would be great if only they had a user interface czar early in development.
- Do a lot of research before you make technology decisions - it's not fun to rearchitect once you realize your underlying technology doesn't meet your needs.
- Never treat your customers as if they are stupid because they can't use your product.  The problem is with your product, not them.  Appreciate the opportunity to do better.
- Have a real subject matter expert - not your cousin or best friend, but someone who has been in your space, knows the issues, knows the market and knows what clients want. 
- Be passionate about your product.  You will spend a lot of time looking at it and talking to people about it.
- Have a fun side project to take your mind off solving complex coding issues.  Google is smart to give their employees free time to work on personal projects.  Sometimes you just need to switch gears and clear your head.

The democratization of the software industry is opening up an entire new world of opportunity.  Savvy developers will profit and more businesses will be able to emerge with better tools, lower overhead, and a stronger competitive advantage.

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Starting Up

I don't know what's going on this week but I think it's a hopeful sign of some economic progress ahead.  Seems like everyone I've spoken to is brewing a big plan to expand their business.  Here's how to be successful implementing the next big product or service in your own company:

- Don't gloss over details.

If you are announcing a new product or service, are you doing enough to market and publicize it so your target audience knows?  Are you sure there is a need?  Is your product or service essential or nice to have?  What are the characteristics of the target market?  Do you know where to find buyers and how to reach them? Have you looked closely at the competition to ensure you have a unique offering?  Don't guess and don't listen to the "yes men" in your company or rely solely on what your family and friends think. Do some real market research so you can walk in with your eyes wide open.  You shouldn't get bound up in "analysis paralysis" but you shouldn't gloss over details related to sales, marketing, operations, product development or delivery.  Few things are worse then investing a lot of time and money in a new product only to learn that the market doesn't want it, you can't find people to sell it to or there is some legal or logistical roadblock in the way.

- Understand a realistic price point.

Your product will fail if it costs more than the market is willing to spend.  Rather than discount 90%, set the price correctly the first time.  Big discounts undermine your credibility as a vendor.  Clients don't want to buy from desperate vendors, they want to buy from companies with a reasonable product at an acceptable price.  If you are facing constant downward price pressure, rethink your pricing model, take a look at the competition and ensure you are selling the full value of your capabilities to prospects.  Be ready to have a very honest and forthright conversation with your salespeople if they are struggling.  Too many companies blame sales for not producing when the real issue has something to do with the product or price.

- Make sure your team is on board.

Can you articulate your plan well enough to get everyone rowing the boat in the same direction?  Is everyone participating? I've seen countless failed projects over the years because non-believing team members either subtly or overtly undermine them.  Winning projects take a leap of faith on everyone's part, a willingness to talk honestly about obstacles and a persistence to ensure no critical step skipped and no time wasted.  I can't tell you how many times I've seen management announce a new product or sales model and salespeople explode into the 1000 reasons why it won't work.  Sometimes this is reluctance to change but sometimes the sales team knows things they're not telling you.  Identify and resolve these objections before you go public with the new plan.  I know your company is not run as a democracy but anyone who has watched President Obama try to reform health care can see the value of having the team fully on board.  If you have built a company based on honesty and trust, your team will likely point out potential obstacles that you can address in advance.  My guess is that few of us have competitors who are all that more organized and have better teamwork so this is an area where a wise manager can gain some real competitive advantage.

- Spend quality time with the real buyers of your product and service.

Are you spending enough time talking to your customers - not asking for favors or lobbing in courtesy calls, but real conversations with your customers about their issues, concerns and dreams for your product or service?  Do you avoid them when they are angry or do you listen, really listen, to what they are saying.  If you want a sustainable business, you have to tell customers the truth and you should strive to ensure everyone on your team does the same, under-promises and over-delivers.   Your goal should be to have clients who will rave about your product and service.

- Have the right team.

This is perhaps the hardest thing for many managers and business owners.  Some companies get hung up on the credentials of the applicants.  Better to find someone really enthusiastic about your market, your product and your customers.  Invest time to teach them the products.  Don't fall into the trap thinking the salesperson doesn't need to understand what they are selling.  Making that mistake puts you at an immediate disadvantage since the first person the customer talks to has little to no credibility.  Walk everyone in your company through product demos.  Have them ask questions as if they were real buyers.  Make sure everyone can explain the product, the value of the product and how it benefits the customer.  Make sure everyone can give an interesting, and brief, demo.  Don't beat your team up for getting it wrong.  Show them the right way to do it and let them practice.  Reward creativity and enthusiasm.

And finally, break big efforts down into smaller pieces and make people accountable for a part they feel comfortable with.  Ensure accountability with tools like BaseCamp (www.basecamphq.com) that track tasks and ownership.  I've found this invaluable for keeping projects moving forward and people accountable for their role.

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