Get Your Story Straight

What do top technology companies have in common? Think about SalesForceIBM,VMwareWorkdayAppleRiverbed, Cisco.  What separates market leaders and category creators from the rest of the pack?

They tell powerful stories.

Stories matter. We see it over and over again. Companies that capitalize on an inflection point and grab a leadership position always have a thought-provoking point of view that resonates with buyers. Customers buy into the story before they buy the solution. 

And a story is more than a slogan or a catchy tagline. It’s offering a different perspective, not just pushing a product. It’s a crisp, clear way of communicating how a company or a product will solve a big, hairy problem for customers. It comes from putting the customer’s needs and requirements first, not the technology or the company’s agenda.

Look at Cisco. The company wasn’t founded to sell routers and switches. It started when a husband and wife wanted to email each other from different offices at Stanford and they couldn’t. So they created the multi-protocol router and solved the problem. And they knew others wanted the same problem solved. They didn’t launch a product—they solved a problem and created a powerful story and different point-of-view. And they instilled a customer-first, problem-solving culture at Cisco. You know the rest of that story.

Need other examples? Look at game-changing CEOs Marc BenioffLarry EllisonSteve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos. They disrupted markets and catapulted their companies into legendary status with conversations that re-framed the problem for buyers. They articulated their company’s value in simple, concise positioning stories and a narrative that offers a new perspective to buyers.

So if a great story is the key to success, why doesn’t every technology company have one? The reason is simple.

All too often, the responsibility for positioning is taken on by tech CEOs or product managers who are in love with their technology.  And technology moves to the forefront of the story. WRONG. Buyers don’t care what’s cool about your technology or your IP. They care what it does for them.

The most effective storylines carve out a distinct corner of the room—and box competitors in as having a solution for “yesterday’s problem” or “the right idea, but the wrong approach.”

What makes a good storyline? The most effective positioning stories MUST answer three questions for the target buyer:

#1: Why your company or product, NOW?

Tell them in clear, human terms what problem your product solves and why it’s important to solve it TODAY. Is this an old problem that has gotten worse? A new problem caused by fast-changing market dynamics? Will your buyer lose his job if he doesn’t solve this problem? Strong positioning stories empathize with the buyer’s situation and create a sense of urgency about solving a critical problem.

#2: Why is your solution different?

Once the buyer agrees with your point of view, the next question on their mind is “who else can solve this problem?” or “can my existing technology vendor take care of this for me?” Great stories lay down the logic for a new approach to solving the problem. This requires talking about your secret sauce, IP, or game-changing differentiators  in terms of business requirements. You can avoid the tedious “feature-checklist” war by articulating the need for a different approach. Different, not better, always wins.

#3: How will this improve my life six months from now?

Paint your buyer a picture of how much better their life will be with an investment in your solution. Your life is “hell” right now (big problem); here is the unique approach (our secret sauce) for solving this problem; here is what your life will soon look like.

All market leaders and category disruptors have a compelling and distinct point of view. If you want to join them, start by getting your story straight.

8 Symptoms: You Know You Have A Positioning Problem When….

A change in strategy changes everything. It cannot be undertaken lightly.

Capitalizing on a change in strategy or inflection point often requires solving a new customer problem, selling and marketing to a different set of buyers and competing against a new group of competitors.

Yet all too often, the effort required to capture the minds and wallets of a new set of buyers is treated casually – but it is the underpinning that makes a brilliant strategy drive revenue growth.

What do all these successful, market-leading technology companies – IBMSalesForce,WorkdayRiverbedCisco – have in common?

They all have powerful, compelling, thought-provoking Stories. 

For these companies, Positioning has become a core competency and the road to market leadership and revenue growth.

Those technology companies that successfully capitalize on a new product, service or market inflection point have a compelling, thought provoking, engaging story. It’s that simple.

However, very few technology companies are effectively able to translate their product, service, IP and features into a message that resonates with buyers, clearly differentiates from the competition and captures the imagination of the market.

During past year, I have seen hundreds of technology positioning presentations. Over and over again, I continue to see the same positioning pitfalls – and common symptoms that point an underlying Positioning problem that is holding back the company and inhibiting revenue growth.

You know you have a positioning problem when:

1) Your Slide Deck is 30 Slides: your presentation takes too many slides to explain your solution before your buyer ‘gets-it”. Your presentation drags on in a vain attempt to sell and convince your potential buyer.

2) Long Sales Cycles and Lots of “No-Decision”: your message does not create a sense or urgency with your buyers – it’s not a “hair-on-fire” conversation – as a result, sales cycles drag out or the buyers don’t seen any difference between you and any of your competitors, so they don’t make a decision.

3) Ask 3 People What You Do and You Get 3 Different Answers: inconsistent messaging is the death-knell for any technology company. In the absence of a good story, everyone makes one up. The result is predictable. The market is confused and you don’t “own” a position in the minds of your buyer.

4) Blah, Blah, Blah – You Sound Like All Your Competitors: your message and positioning story sounds exactly like your competition – your buyer could take any of your competitor’s logo and put in on your web site and it would look the same. A glazed look has set in with your buyers – and if your buyer can’t see any discernable difference between you and your competitors, they will go with the bigger, “brand-name” competitor.

5.) Your Company is Not Considered a Player in the Market:  your blah, blah, message dissolves into the cacophony of noise in the market  – brand awareness has become brand annoyance – if your company is not considered in a every sales cycle or you are off the radar-screen with the analysts and buyers, your positioning strategy has failed and is broken.

6) You Spent a Lot of $ on PR and Got Nowhere: strategies fizzle when positioning is broken and the market is not responding to your message.  In response, you spend a lot of money on a PR campaign, thinking a drumbeat and flurry of social media posts, tweets, press releases, white papers and analyst meetings will bring you the attention and market awareness your solution rightly deserves. However, if you don’t have anything interesting to say or your “me-too” story is boring, stale and un-differentiated– no amount of PR $ or social media effort will make a hill-of-beans difference. A provocative, thoughtful, differentiated story is the underpinning essential to drive market awareness and ultimately revenue growth.

7) Your Sales People Call on Anything That Moves: long sales cycles, lots of no-decisions, high “loss” rates, deeply discounted pricing, suspect forecasts – are all symptoms of a positioning problem. Strong, effective positioning focuses the sales efforts by clearly identifying the ideal target buyer – and creating a differentiated, thought provoking story that resonates with this buyer and creates a sense of urgency for them toact. Powerful positioning is a catalyst, giving the field organization a rallying cry, strong qualifying direction and confidence they have a story that will win them deals.

8 ) You Don’t Have a Viewpoint: you don’t stand for anything – and you are contribution the same old “blah, blah, blah” to the noise in the market. Your buyers have turned off –     – do you have anything substantive to offer your buyers? What is your contribution to this industry? What new way of thinking do you contribute? Failed strategies “sell” products. Successful companies ENGAGE buyers. Engages them with new ideas, solve problems that make their lives better, provocative viewpoints that make buyers stand up and notice.