Why you shouldn’t believe your own marketing story

The CEO asked what seemed to be a straightforward question. Why isn’t Business Unit A using the software that Business Unit B produces? Doesn’t that software provide capabilities that would be hugely beneficial to Business Unit A. Folks around the boardroom look around uncomfortably and skirt the question. The reality was that, yes, Business Unit A could use the capabilities the CEO described…the problem is Business Unit B’s software didn’t quite provide them those capabilities in a way that would work for Business Unit A.

So why was the CEO suggesting it? Because in this large company, he had been given the marketing story around the software, so in his mind, it did all kinds of things, and solved all kinds of problems. However, the technical limitations, and constraints and specifics around the problems solved were details the C-Suite didn’t hear.

Businesses often talk about “eating their own dogfood” and it is a good practice, both as a way of learning where there may be problems in their product, and as a selling point: “Our product is so good, we use it ourselves!” The CEO was simply wondering why his company was not doing the same thing — if our software is so great, why aren’t we using it ourselves?

The problem stemmed from how the product was talked about within the company. The software, which was aimed at enterprise businesses, had a complex assortment of functionalities, which were generally discussed in high level terms. Such generalities, often used in marketing materials, promise solutions to a lot of potential problems and enable companies to both to position themselves as covering a large portion of the marketplace to encourage prospective customers to take a closer look at the product. However, when employees and executives only understand the product at the level of generalities, the company can miss both warning signs and opportunities. Just because you are providing a solution does not mean that it addresses a problem that enough potential customers care about, or that you are addressing it in a way that will work with the rest of their tools and processes.

If the assumption that the product will cleanly address a vast array of needs for a vast array of users is not tested, managers can lack a clear understanding what their product’s strengths and weaknesses really are. Without honestly assessing weaknesses the product risks being beaten out by competitors and product roadmaps may not be well prioritized. Likewise, failing to articulate unique competitive strengths, can lead a company to spread its resources thin rather than targeting the prospective customers most likely to see real value from the product.

How do we learn where these strengths and weaknesses lie? A crucial place to begin is by understanding people — both inside and outside the company.

How is the company talking about the product?

Conversations should start with the product manager — what does she or he say the key value propositions are, and the key differentiators? How does the product deliver on that? Where does the manager think the product is lacking? Next, check the sales and marketing materials — are they telling the same story, or is it altered somehow? If there is a salesforce, ask them how they discuss the product with prospective customers.

How are current customers using your product?

While customer surveys and usage metrics can be valuable for many research questions, this part of the process requires conversation, and ideally, observation, with customers. Seeing the product in use enables you to understand the situations and contexts in which it is used, and to see what other tools are part of the user’s end to end process. You can also learn how important your solution is to the overall process, especially in relation to other products they are using.

How are non-users doing the work?

Understanding non-users can be more important than understanding users, especially if it is potential customers you think should see value in the product. I recently worked on a product that had not sold well — in fact, there were few enough users that we recruited non-users who seemed to fit the target profile. Being in the field, seeing how the work was done, enabled us to articulate for the business exactly where the value was in their product, and how they could focus in on a niche market. We could also explain why simply adding more features would not make a significant difference in the appeal of the product, forestalling investments that would not have broadened the market share.

How to change the internal conversation

Once the strengths and weaknesses are understood from the customer point of view, the internal conversation can switch from highlighting high level value propositions to evaluating whether they are the right strengths and weaknesses, and where investments should and shouldn’t be made in the product, and in the marketing mix. The conversation with the CEO can then be an honest assessment of how Business Unit A is not the right target, or how Business Unit B has road mapped the product to fix its shortcomings.