My daughter just got a new pair of chargeable running shoes and because the cable is the same as that for her phone, I was half expecting the shoes to do a little more than light up. They just light up. No bluetooth, IoT, music, GPS, step counting, dance steps or hover capabilities. Just some overly bright coloured LEDs. If I walk a mile in her shoes to understand what makes her tick, it will be on a deserted road. Understanding daughters is a lot tougher than understanding sales people.
For the past five years I have been helping large global enterprises to bridge the gaps between where their marketing departments want their direct and indirect sales forces to focus or what to learn and what those sales people want to focus on and learn. And one of the key elements to successfully bridge that gap is to align the priorities of Marketing and sales people. And that is mostly done by getting Marketing to adjust rather than sales people. Marketing, so focused on what customers want, often don’t accommodate what their sales people need sufficiently. Marketing, just as they would for an ideal customer, must always walk a mile in a sales person’s shoes, asking themselves the question, as if they were that ideal sales person, “What’s in it for me?” Because both marketing and direct sales people are working in the same company, those sales people are an easy audience to probe and common ground is relatively easy to establish. A clear direction from the VP of Sales cascaded down to a local sales manager’s quarterly objectives might be enough (and when it isn’t, that’s the gap I’ve been working on). Step outside the company into the shoes of an indirect sales person and the rules of the game change – in fact the rules are different for each partner. Each channel partner has their own set of business priorities and the chances of automatic alignment with their vendor’s strategic direction or quarterly objectives are pretty slim.
As an example, one very well known IT vendor behaves as if each of its business partners has a financial year end identical to its own and each is a public company that needs to meet a forecast the partner gave to analysts three months ago. Every year, every Q4, new promotions are announced by this vendor to partners in an effort to pump up the numbers. Often they take the form of peculiar bundle deals. Many years ago, customers became wise to this and delayed any Q3 spend to take advantage of year end price cuts, but there is little most business partner sales people can do to positively influence their customers to take advantage of a Q4 promotion that their customers wouldn’t do on their own. The best thing the vendor could do would be to change its year end to March 31st. At least that way, most of its customers won’t have spent all their IT budgets by the end of their own financial years.
Walking a mile in a partner’s shoes and having an answer for “What’s in it for me?” are challenges – but challenges that can be met. Listen to partners – not just roundtables with a select few, but broader, in depth, qualitative feedback through a formal system across the entire partner ecosystem. And I’m not talking about online surveys. Really understand how sales people in the channel and their sales managers are compensated and how their objectives are set. Understand how they wish to communicate with you. Ask whose views they respect – who inspires them! Deliver the messages and in depth content they need in a format that will not just keep them awake but enthusiastic. I’m pretty sure it’s not your average webinar or weekly newsletter.
When surveying business partner or customer concerns in companies that have complex ecosystems, one technique we have used for several years is the tag cloud. They are used to summarize the concerns, recommendations and commendations heard during qualitative in-depth interviews. Two assumptions are made: that each and every interviewee’s opinion carries equal weight, which in practice is not true because some customers have more buying power than others; and that if a customer or partner mentions something several times, it carries more weight than something mentioned only once, which again may not be true, because that one mention, might be a deeply felt root cause. From the notes of the interview, customer comments are categorized so they can be tallied across all interviews. Then we go to wordle.net and paste those words in.
Customer concerns tag cloud
We end up with a quick and easy way of showing frequency of mention. The bigger the word, the more often it was mentioned. We find it carries more visual impact than a bar chart and sticks in the mind longer. To overcome the faults that lie with the above assumptions, we also recommend that clients read the notes made during the interviews to get a flavour of the gist of those conversations.
Having been brought in by a client recently to sanity check their routes to market prior to launching a new set of products, I was reminded on an old piece of marketing advice – first, walk a mile in the customer’s shoes. In the context of routes to market, that means being completely aware of how customers already buy products and services like yours -who they transact with and to whom they turn to for advice that leads to a brand decision. So often, companies launch new offerings into their existing channels because it is what they know best and and can manage best. Existing routes are their comfort zone. They have partner account teams that already perform well by servicing those routes. To establish new routes is a risk. It takes time to build a trusting partner relationship – and who has time?
Reviewing your routes to market is one of those early fundamental steps required to complete your business plan for a new offering. One can’t assume that because customers buy one set of products from you this way, they will continue to prefer to buy another set in the same way. There may already be incumbent competitors who have conditioned the market to expect your type of new offering to arrive at customers in a wholly different way. For example, customers may prefer a more direct route to market. – a direct relationship. One can’t assume that customers’ future preferences will be based on your past conventions.
And the client? They had done an admirable job prepping their existing channels, as one would expect, and there were entirely appropriate routes that had been overlooked. A completely sane, but mixed bag with plenty of new opportunity to reach customers.
We don’t know what we don’t know about China, as Donald Rumsfeld might have put it. A year ago, fed up trying to get sensible market research on my own from China for a telecoms client, I turned to a large Chinese market research agency, Info China. I found them by looking through the directory of Esomar which is a market research industry body that promotes ethical market research. They specialize in IT, Telecoms, Healthcare and Financial Services B2B research and their BDM speaks English -in fact he went to university in the UK. They are an offshoot of the University of Beijing and have been going for ten years.
We worked on a couple projects together and after struggling with some Chinglish, we are now getting the type of quality needed to gain real Chinese customer and partner insights for my U. S. client. I was lucky. I took a shot in the dark in finding them, though Esomar proved to be a reasonably good filter. Info China, like most Chinese companies, is unused to promoting themselves outside China. I thought, if only they improved their web site, that would be a start – so we worked together to do just that and they were very happy to take advice (and some copy writing help). Then I probed how they attracted clients. I learnt that much foreign market research work in China is subcontracted by market research agencies, many of them based near me, in and around London. So right now, for Info China, I am interviewing these agencies to find out how they go about developing relationships with Chinese market research companies.
And I have had some excellent conversations. Market research agencies understand better than most the value of market research. Like me, they are more naturally curious than others – so interviewing them isn’t a problem. And it turns out, they too are very curious about China as a market for Western goods and services – as are their clients. So I hope, in the near future, to shed some light on the Rumsfeld conundrum, and at least suspect what I don’t know, as I help put a Western face on Info China.
At last week’s Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, Morgan Stanley’s Mary Meeker gave an insightful talk on the economy and internet trends. She asserts that the mobile internet will be bigger than most people think. Her slides are here with the ones on internet trends beginning on page 28. Let’s look a little more closely at the complex, rapidly morphing telecoms market – where the action is now largely in mobile devices. For a pithy overview of the telecoms industry, allow me to copy from that industry’s changes as cited by the eComm conference in Amsterdam that is concluding today:
• Telecom is becoming software
• Today’s model of the telephony and SMS cash-cows will significantly dry up long-term
• “Phones” are becoming general purpose always-on computers
• A march is underway to change how spectrum is allocated and utilised
• Applications innovation is being democratised
• The media industry is converging with personal communications
• Internet-style ecosystems are starting to pressurise the traditional value chain
• Search engines and computer manufactures are encroaching into the space
• App downloads; media content and even communication streams are increasingly routing-around operator’s billing systems
• The telecom kingdom is fragmenting daily.
What is a supplier to do? Let’s look at smartphone operating systems and the Symbian operating system in particular, backed by the likes of Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Samsung, and as of this year, an open source venture. Speaking on the subject of innovation at a London’s Symbian SEE 2009 show yesterday, noted author Geoffrey Moore declared that the only recourse for members of the Symbian ecosystem is to copy as fast as they can the innovations made by Google and Apple, commoditize those innovations, and use Symbian’s huge installed footprint to turn the tables on its competitors – or lose share to Google and/or Apple. In other words, copy Microsoft’s strategy when faced with the upstart Netscape and use its platform to commoditize and integrate its competitors’ functionality. His slides are here.
Moore also predicts that there will only be one winner amongst smartphone mobile operating systems. He expects that within two or three years we will see which one will reach a critical tipping point. In Symbian’s favour, Google he said is disadvantaged by attention deficit syndrome – it keeps on innovating and has trouble concentrating on anything long enough outside its core advertising/search business. Apple he claims prefers to occupy prestige brand positions. Microsoft has problems breaking out of blue collar mobility.
Whilst copying competitor innovations and leveraging a huge installed base may help guard aganst some encroachment, I am not so sure we will see a consolidation in the near term. I suspect mobile ISV’s will continue to have to port to several OS’s for the next decade if they want to grow from tens of millions of dollars turnover to hundreds. Mobile infrastructures vary widely between regions and consumer profiles. Where Japanese demand high sophistication, developing countries need inexpensive basics. An elderly person is likely to use a different handset to that of a much younger facebook, YouTube addict. The sheer size of the smartphone market, diversity in use types and supporting infrastructures have made it possible for different mobile business ecosystems to thrive, unlike the simpler and smaller early PC era that Moore often cites. There is room in the mobile market for diverse approaches, devices and ecosystems – so fragmentation will probably continue for at least a few more years.
If you look at a list of partners sorted by size of partner, major vendor’s partner ecosystems usually look like very flat pyramids. They will have a few very large partners, companies that may be of the same size or exceed that of the vendors, and a large number of companies that are smaller – many very much smaller. For smaller partners, acquiring new customers is challenging. Based on a study I did recently, the smaller partners value very highly the traffic and leads generated from a vendor’s site.
For vendors with a partner network in the tens and hundreds, it is usually pretty easy it put together a simple to use directory that connects prospects and partners. Microsoft, on the other hand, never seems to get this right, in spite of the fact that partners are its main route to market. Having worked on a number of projects for Microsoft and Microsoft partners, and prior to that for Microsoft competitors, I have always used their partner directories. Though I appreciate the depth and breadth of their ecosystem, I have always been baffled at the company’s inability to classify and serve up partner information in a way that is simple enough for ordinary customers to make use of. Their latest attempt, Pinpoint, which overlays results on a map is still off the mark. Because the partner network is so vast, the task of accurately pigeon holing each and every partner never seems to get addressed. And it is a poor showcase of their technology. Perhaps as part of their ecosystem revamp, this gap will finally be addressed. Meantime, if you need to find a reliable Microsoft Partner for hosted messaging, I can recommend a very good one.