Creating an Enterprise Software Category — and Owning It
I frequently travel. I know this (my dogs know this) — so why doesn’t my bank know this? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the same conversation, “Yes, it’s me. And yes, I’m in _______ for the millionth time this year.” Why isn’t there a way for them to flag me as a frequent traveler? Why can’t they use my past interactions to personalize future engagement? With all the sophisticated technology available today, there’s no excuse. (By the way, I switched banks.)
This isn’t uncommon, it’s the norm. And, it no longer cuts it with customers. Every enterprise company in every industry has a target on its back. Companies who don’t figure out how to deliver winning experiences will be disrupted by startups or other big companies who can innovate faster and deliver killer customer experiences.
So how does an incumbent survive in the golden age of disruption?
The answer is: Deliver an equally compelling customer experience within each of your niche product lines, and leverage your strengths of scale, customer breadth and depth and broad channel presence to deliver differentiated value that a niche company can’t match.
Customer experience is the new battleground. And delivering world-class customer experience at scale is a complicated technology problem. This is why I founded Usermind.
So how did I — a person who has spent the past 20 years building IT software — end up building a company to solve a customer experience problem?
I looked for the three keys that I think are required for category creation and pulled threads til I found CX.
1. Categories are created when multiple disruptions affect the same part of the business at once
When you can identify one change and the pain point it’s causing, maybe you can build a tuck-in technology that someone might acquire. When you can identify three or four big, interrelated changes, then you’ve likely found something where the shift is so broad and intense that a completely new solution is required. That is when better fails and different becomes a must.
When I was founding Usermind, I identified a whole set of disruptions:
- Because of digital transformation, buying and selling are in the midst of the biggest shift they’ve seen in the last 20 years
- The cost of building an online business is so low that selling is increasingly more digital and direct
- There has been a massive transformation in the technology being used in marketing and sales to enable this new set of customer experiences — there are now thousands of SaaS companies solving specific problems, and the MarTech stack is just as complex as an IT environment
- All of these changes have led to new personas being created — marketing operations, sales operations etc. — whose job it is to manage all this siloed technology and fragmented customer data
2. Start with a persona, not a product. Let them lead you to the right solution.
Once you’ve found a big enough problem or set of problems, you need to understand them in enough depth to craft a product solution. You have to stress-test your assumptions with the people who will be using it. You can be right about the disruption happening, but still build the wrong product.
In our case, I did 300 interviews over three and a half months. I started with salespeople, asking how changes in the industry were affecting them. Through this, I discovered that most of their challenges were rooted in problems with operations. I chose to do my next round of interviews exclusively with sales and marketing ops people, and that’s when the themes of disconnected systems, disconnected data, and the impact of technology disruption became really clear. The last tranche of discussions was with marketing technology leaders, trying to understand the business impact of solving the technology problem. At that point, I understood the problem and the value of solving it, and had a very strong point of view about what I would build to bridge that gap.
Out of these conversations, I didn’t just get a better, more refined product — I got the seeds of a disruptive point of view, which is a way to describe the future of customer engagement and make a roadmap to help other people get there.
3. Category companies bring a new way of thinking about a problem. That narrative matters as much as the product.
If you have a gigantic set of disruptions which require transformative change and a unique product that helps people get to the other side, you don’t have enough. Category creation requires evangelism to succeed. A disruptive narrative is required.
Valuable software changes the way people work. Great software companies tell a story about why their customers should work or do business in a fundamentally new way. Category creators marry a good idea or product with thought leadership that helps the customer understand the what, why and how. Great examples include Marc Benioff of Salesforce’s “No More Software” pitch which capitalized on installation and upgrade pain and cost to revolutionize an entire industry or APM as an idea — monitoring not just servers and networks but end-to-end application performance. Great technologies wrapped in incredible narratives.
The combination of a big market, a great product, and thought leadership puts you on the path to building a huge software company, and creates a tremendous competitive advantage. The combination of a great product and a smart, provocative narrative makes you more than a vendor: It makes you a trusted provider to the customer.
In Usermind’s case, four years later Gartner and Ovum are writing about our category of software as a Customer Engagement Hub that connects and maps customer data, and automates real-time engagement through customer journeys. Our early enterprise customers are working with us as a trusted provider.
So dig deep in your industry to find out what’s causing the most painful changes. Get good at taking people out for coffee or beers. Get great at telling your story. Competitors may be able to copy you feature for feature, but it’s almost impossible to replicate the customer trust that a killer product and thought leadership create.