I’ve been involved with the challenges of marketing and selling complex information technology products and services ever since the computer industry was known as IBM and the seven dwarfs. (I’d love to hear back from anyone who remembers who the dwarfs were). Over the years (make that decades) I’ve seen a recurring set of barriers that stand in the way of adoption of such products. In fact these barriers are as high today as they were when Honeywell (they were one of the 7 dwarfs) was desperately slugging it out with the other 6 for the 15% market share that IBM didn’t own.
What I find surprising is how few companies selling complex products today have learned anything from the past. As Winston Churchill advised: “the further you look back, the more clearly you can see ahead.” So here is my look back at what stands in the way of success when selling and marketing complex products. The good news is that it is a very short list. The bad news is that they must all be dealt with equally if success is to be achieved.
Barrier 1: Integration.
Complex products rarely stand alone. They must be integrated into existing systems and work flows before they can do anything worthwhile. It is this requirement to work with other stuff that contributes to their perception of being complex. The problem is that many potential customers see the challenge of successfully integrating the new product into their environment to be beyond their capabilities, and for a variety of reasons are not convinced that the vendor can solve this problem for them. Companies that successfully overcome this barrier often do so by pro actively addressing integration as a part of their product offering, They frequently brand the integration process and sell it as a service, with a detailed action plan that lets the buyer see what happens when, and very importantly, what responsibilities the buyer must assume during the integration process. If the seller does not have the resources to handle the integration themselves, they would do well to partner with an integrator whose brand is respected in the market they are selling into. In effect, they can borrow the brand equity of their system integrator to overcome the buyer’s concern about achieving a successful outcome.
Barrier 2: Transcendence
The decision to acquire a complex product cuts across multiple organizational (and political) boundaries. Sales success depends on the near-simultaneous buy-in from multiple influencers and approvers, each with their own receptivity to innovation. The bell curve that describes the diffusion of innovation reminds us that the majority of people in any market are followers, not leaders. They resist change, especially when change may require learning and applying new behavior (see barrier 4).
The problem for the seller is that their internal champion is likely to be an innovator/early adopter. They “get it” early in the sales cycle and are eager to see their company adopt whatever the new solution is. So the salesperson is often seduced by the champion’s ability to derive the benefits his or her product offers (rarely to be found in any marketing materials about the product) by understanding how the product works. But keep in mind that while the internal champion gets an A for his/her technical understanding and enthusiasm, the typically get a D or F for their ability to build the same enthusiasm across the organization. Why? Because they are not trained sales people. When they share their insight about the product with others they do what they know best: the describe how it works. And in doing so, either put others to sleep, or worse, scare the hell out of them.
To overcome this barrier, the “how it works” story that appeals to early adopters must be supplemented by one or more “how you’ll benefit” stories that the champion can use to influence the more conservative decision makers within the organization. The way to think about it is to remember the following play on words: The way most innovators and early adopters think is. “I’ll believe it when I see it.” But for the early and late majority, that changes to, “I’ll see it when I believe it.”
Barrier 3: Trialability
Due in large measure to the first barrier, complex products are difficult, if not impossible, to try before they are bought. Many companies attempt to overcome this barrier by offering scaled down “pilot” versions of the product that attempt to give the potential buyer a sense of what the product can do. All too often the pilot fails to impress for two major reasons.
First, buyer expectations are set too high. By the end of the pilot program the results represent a small subset of what the vendor promised the product is capable of. The buyer finds it difficult to extrapolate these results into a full blown implementation and decides against purchasing.
Second, and even more problematic, is the reaction of the end users who are selected to use the product during the pilot project. Typically these poor souls are caught in a tough spot. They are asked to use the new product, while at the same time continuing to perform their assigned tasks using current tools and procedures. Naturally to use the new product effectively they need to go through a learning process (often taking time away from their assigned tasks). And once they learn how to use it, they need to use it a lot in order to truly experience its benefits. The latter requirement is rarely met because they really didn’t have enough learning time, and they are too busy keeping up with activities that require use of existing systems. So it is not surprising that these early testers are often unenthusiastic about the product and help contribute to a growing consensus within the company that the product doesn’t offer enough benefit to justify the price.
To get around this barrier, wise companies avoid pilots like the plague. Instead they offer a well-defined multiphase implementation (typically three phases work best). This enables them to control buyer expectations, especially during the initial phase. Ideally during that critical phase, you want to define a level of improvement or performance that if attained will pave the way for the customer to fund the second and third phases. To help insure success, some innovative companies provide on-site mentors that work side-by-side with the initial end user group in a master/apprentice relationship.
Barrier 4: Behavior
In order to take full advantage of the many features offered by a new complex product, individuals, departments, and sometimes entire organizations must change their behavior. And the more enterprise-oriented the product is, the more significant this barrier becomes. Lots of enterprise software winds up as shelf ware, not because it couldn’t be installed or or used, but because users simply were not motivated (though training, incentives, or stronger measures) to use it effectively. What many sellers of complex products fail to grasp is that there is significant revenue to be had by offering branded programs that focus on bringing about the changes in behavior that are needed to fully exploit the benefits of any new product; especially one that is complex.