Friday Rant: Educating the Market is Not the Same as Selling to It

Over the past month, we've had two instances (both of which will go unnamed) where we did a rather poor job vetting what one of our sponsors would say in a given venue. As an example, rather than focus primarily on educating an audience in one presentation that we gave jointly with an advertiser, a situation lapsed into much more of a direct sales pitch during the provider/vendor component that reflected somewhat poorly -- at least based on the response of some audience members -- on both of us for not taking the thought leadership high ground. Even though the criticism from this situation was undoubtedly temporary, the lessons learned were extremely helpful. Speaking more broadly, I think there are some takeaways for all of us -- not just Spend Matters and our other affiliate businesses and sites (which now seem to be growing too quickly for our own good sometimes).

I can't overemphasize the importance of technology providers and consultants investing in educating the market versus spending time selling to it. When a provider has a truly innovative technology or highly differentiated services, there is no need to provide an infomercial on how great or disruptive the solution is -- proverbial chest beating, as some would call it. Rather, it's far more effective (and useful for potential customers) to position the afterlife of using the toolset or consuming the services by showing the impact for a typical consumer in a real-world context. Let the "Aha!" moment for the audience be their perception of the potential impact a solution might have on them.

This brings me to my second point around where we've seen a number of providers really screw up recently in selling and marketing solutions to procurement, finance and supply chain professionals. This is something far more providers are guilty of than others. What we speak of here is a lack of empathy for what customers and prospects really face in their everyday lives -- what really matters to them. Far too many marketing and salespeople are truly detached from what it means to operate in a given environment. For example, when it comes to electronic invoicing and companies that are somewhat mature in this area, the real challenge for many AP and procurement managers is not simply attempting to go paperless -- it's the effort that will be required to onboard the bulk of their suppliers versus just a select handful. This is where so many vendors have come up short. Maybe they have the best matching and workflow capability under the sun, but if you can only enable 20% of your suppliers electronically, who cares (and no, scan/capture/OCR is not a replacement here).

So rather than talk about some great vision for working capital nirvana or some supplier portal on steroids that can manifest world peace, I suspect that providers would be far better served by their marketing efforts by showing exactly how their approach to onboarding can lead to better outcomes. This is what we mean by framing a discussion and showing empathy in customer terms! It's also one of the reasons I think vendors like Coupa and Zycus have been successful in selling what amount to generally lesser-featured -- although that is changing rather quickly -- solutions in the P2P and sourcing sector compared with incumbents. Their empathy for the typical users, especially as presented in their overall UI and product design, comes through loud and clear.

By putting the user experience first and selling the afterlife of what using the product will be like -- versus just selling the product -- the best vendors and providers build a connection with users and prospects that is so very different than those who follow a traditional sales model. From a vendor point of view, educating the market is not the same as selling to it -- it's actually better. And you don't alienate anyone in the commercial engagement process, either. So as we all think about our resolutions going into 2012, here are few very basic yet important ones to add to the list if you're a vendor or provider: compete at the "idea level", sell less, and educate more. Oh yeah, and lest I forget, we'll be eating our own dog-food here as well, both when it comes to how we engage with customers but also how our sponsors and advertisers engage with our readers and community.

Jason Busch

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