“If You Take Away Your Products, What’s Left?”

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I read a wonderful quote from Colin Shaw, “If you take away a company’s products, what do you have left?*”

It’s a critical question each sales and marketing professional needs to answer—ultimately, that’s your differentiation.  That’s the value customers want that will cause you to stand out and win.

Don’t get me wrong, your products and services are what get you in the game in the first place.  So great products and services are mandatory.  Increasingly, however, they are table stakes.

In today’s world of complex B2B buying, by the time you’ve become shortlisted, any of the alternatives will solve the customer problem.

All your features, functions, feeds, speeds, features, benefits are meaningless.  The fact that your competition may have a few more bells and whistles is meaningless.

What sets you apart and causes you to win is not your product.  It’s the “stuff” that sits outside your product.

It’s a huge problem for lots of sales people.  All we know are our products–yes we may know a little about our brand, our company’s strength in the markets, and so on.  But the things most critical to the customer are not about the product we offer.

So what is it?  It’s really about the value we create for the customer–both long before they even decided to buy, through their buying process, and the value they realize and their experience after they buy.

When you take away your products, it’s those things that are left–oddly, it’s those things that are most important to the customer.

The customer knows they can buy a solution from any number of vendors.  But they are looking for help, they are looking to be educated or taught, they are looking for help in organizing to buy.  They are looking for help in justifying their choice–connecting that to the critical priorities in selling to their management.  They are looking to produce results–to extract the value they expected in implementing the change and selecting your solution.

Sit down right now, take a look at your most critical deals.  Take your product out of it.  What’s left over in the mind of the customer?

If there’s nothing–probably the only strategy is to discount the hell out of your offering, make sure you are the lowest price.  But it may not be the winning strategy.

If your competitor has thought about this issue and answered the question.  If there is a rich set of experiences, starting long before the customer decided to change, continuing through their buying process, moving through the value they realize, and the experience they realize with the solution—these are the differentiators, this is why customers choose a specific solution.

If you take away your product, what’s left?  If you can’t answer that in terms relevant to your customer, then your ability to win–and serve your customer is very limited.

Make sure you can answer that question.

*This quote came from a wonderful article from Bob Thompson:   Are You Competing on Customer Experience to Keep Up, Get Ahead, or “Leave a Dent”?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Brock
Dave has spent his career developing high performance organizations. He worked in sales, marketing, and executive management capacities with IBM, Tektronix and Keithley Instruments. His consulting clients include companies in the semiconductor, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, computer, telecommunications, retailing, internet, software, professional and financial services industries.

9 COMMENTS

  1. I love this as a quote Dave – kudos to Colin for making it. At the end of the day, so many have relied on their products and services in a world of exclusivity, that nothing else has mattered. In the modern world, where very little is exclusive anymore, then if there is ‘nothing else’, your product will never be enough!

    Great thought provoking piece!

  2. Bob Thompson’s blog, indeed, had a number of great insights related to the holistic customer experience. The concept of perceived value is really about the whole of the customer experience being greater than the sum of its parts Beyond products (and services), the company should have created positive customer relationships, have attained and maintained a strong image and reputation, and have a customer-centric culture, with employees who are both proactive and responsive where customers are concerned. In addition, the company will support all of this with targeted, personalized messaging and content designed to increase customer bonding.

  3. Some products are so unique that they can’t be duplicated or reasonably copied. This leads to a built-in “return” customer base. For those others, which are the vase majority, what is left is the feeling you are left with when the product doesn’t work as promised and the business either fixes it or distances themselves from it.

    One way of the other, you win or they do.

  4. Thanks for the great comments. It’s unfortunate, so many sales people leave so much value unarticulated or unclaimed by focusing exclusively on their products.

  5. Thanks for the reminder. Harvard marketing guru Ted Levitt said it well…No one buys a product; they buy an expectation of benefit–a solution to fulfill a need. No one bought a 1/4 inch drill bit with the goal of framing it to decorate their den wall; they needed a hole.” Differentiation around objects only works if you are the only game in time. The first maker of drill bits had a competitive edge for probably a week!

  6. Dave, you seem to be saying that the buying and service experiences are the real differentiators. You have a lot of company in the CX world.

    I have a mixed reaction to this.

    In my business I buy/rent and use a lot of technology (to run CustomerThink.com). The actual product capabilities and pricing are far and away the most important thing to me. Despite all the advancements in cloud-based technology, no two solutions are alike.

    That said, if a vendor makes it too hard to engage in the buying process it will affect whether they make the short list. Biggest pet peeves — no pricing info and no trial.

    If I’m already a customer and have problems, tech support certainly matters and could make the difference whether I stay or leave.

    But these are relatively minor considerations when compared to what the product does (function, usability, performance, …) and how much it costs.

    And frankly, I find there is more parity on buying and service experiences than on the products themselves. Everyone is going “cloud” and using modern support tools.

    Granted, this is the perspective of an SMB customer, and large enterprise software may be different. The engagement (education, consulting) by marketing and sales carries more weight. But I find it interesting that if you look at “crowd review” sites like G2 Cloud, Trust Radius, etc. you don’t see buying/service experiences given all that much “ink” for something that is supposed to be so critical.

    In recent years the CX community has been saying that products are commoditized so we should all focus on the experience. I wonder just how true that really is. And, could it be that buying/service experiences are becoming more commoditized too?

    My view is that it takes a unique combination of product/price/experience to win, and SMBs don’t value the “solution” the same way as large enterprises. Products are still hugely important, and industry leaders don’t take as a given that they are building commodities.

    I also think that tech vendors who believe they can’t compete based on their product won’t find it any easier to compete based on CX. The challenges are different, but both are hard to do well.

  7. Wow Bob, you cover a lot here. Sorry, for the slow reply, I’ve been on the road.

    I think we are in violent agreement.

    1. We can’t discount the importance of the product, it’s what gets you considered in the first place. But in the end, we are shortlisted with a few others, each of which will satisfy the customer requirements and be a great solution. So how does the customer choose.

    2. If we compete on product alone and they are undifferentiated in the customer mind, then price always wins. So the issue is, how do we differentiate and create value that is meaningful to the customer? These become the customer buying and implementation experiences. These can/should become important considerations for the customer in making their selection and in the TCO of the solution.

    3. It’s a little what Geoffrey Moore talked about years ago as the “Total Product Offering.” So this is where the real competition takes place, if we as sales people aren’t leveraging this, then we are disadvantaged.

    4. I do agree that suppliers who can’t compete on a product offering are unlikely to also compete on a CX basis. In the simplest case, they never become shortlisted. I think you are really referring to something deeper–which I agree.

    5. So product is important, it’s what gets you into the door. It’s not what causes you to win, there is a lot more. At the same time, if the customer perceives everything else as equal (which means some of your value add, represents no value to the customer) then price wins.

  8. Dave, I agree with everything you wrote for complex B2B sales in large enterprises.

    I don’t agree it always works this way for SMBs. Or for consumers buying everyday products.

    As my example illustrated, sometimes the ‘other’ factors (buying/service experience) are a relatively minor factor.

    I remember a presentation by a Rackspace executive a couple of years ago. Rackspace competes in two very different markets. Large/complex website hosting, where service/support is hugely important. SMBs where simplicity and low cost are key.

    Examine your own purchasing behavior — as a business owner or consumer — and I think you’ll agree. As a trivial example, when you’re buying milk at the local supermarket, are these other factors really at play? How about picking up supplies at Staples?

  9. A challenge for sales organizations large and small is how to make invisible value visible to customers. For large companies with big advertising budgets, we see the evidence in corporate proclamations of social responsibility, engineering and design strength, thought leadership, and lately, liberal social values – evidenced by the vociferous corporate outcry over North Carolina’s latest legislation that restricts its cities from passing broader non-discrimination laws.

    Customers see value in many aspects of what a company does and stands for. For big companies, it’s in CSR, ethical supply chain sourcing, and objecting to draconian legislation that’s unfavorable to employees and stakeholders. For SMB’s, I trust that sponsoring a Little League team or PTA program has swayed a buyer or two in selecting orthodontic or HVAC service. Consumers place value not only in a product’s “features, capabilities, and benefits,” but in a company’s less visible values.

    I will be releasing an article on this topic this month. In the meantime, an article I wrote in 2013, Is There White Space in Your Customer Relationships? touches on this topic.

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