I was fortunate to spend the bulk of my career at one of the world’s best known companies. What I learned there, both personally and professionally, changed my life forever. Now that I have moved on from that amazing experience, I have begun to see more clearly the reasons for many of the business choices that I had the opportunity to view from the perspective of a software developer in a large organization.
As an entrepreneur, I’m getting to learn all sorts of new things about business. While my core competencies are in software systems development, I’ve had to shift my focus to sales and marketing activities while I build a new business. From a techie’s perspective, sales and marketing are functions staffed with dreamers and professional liars who couldn’t commit to a decision if their lives depended on it. Now that I have to do sales and marketing, I’ve learned that my techie view was not entirely correct.
I’m sort of a bookworm. When there is something I need to know, I hit the books, hard. When faced with the challenge of doing sales and marketing myself, I did the usual first step, find the best books I could and study up. A few key points keep repeating themselves across almost all of the sales and marketing material I’ve encountered. Here are the ones I find the most outstanding.
Know Thy Customer
When communicating with customers, we must speak in terms they understand and connect with. We must be able to quickly and accurately discover the customer’s real needs and wants and communicate to them how we can address them in ways they understand. Marketing answers to this center around demographics, segmentation and personas. Much of the nouveau ballyhoo over “Big Data” is about getting and analyzing information about a prospect’s every move, preference and thought so that marketers can make their messages and “touches” feel more personalized and exert greater individual resonance. I get that. Sure, its a bit creepy.
Truly, no honest business should push someone to buy something they don’t want or need. Getting to know your customer through data mining is a bit like rifling through their garbage cans. I suppose each business should approach their customers in the ways they respond the most positively. The best ways to do that vary but share the characteristics that if you don’t know something about your customer, you won’t have an effective way to start a meaningful conversation.
Have a Unique Selling Proposition
Your business is probably not unique. Even though some of the books I read suggested that I “create a category” where I could be number one, the truth is that there are many competitors that do just what I do – custom software development. So, how do I communicate to my prospect that they should choose my business over that of a competitor? First, I must know my customer and encourage them to engage in a conversation. Next, I must clearly show that I have a difference that they cannot get anywhere else. This is the “Unique Selling Proposition”. Sure, lots of companies do custom software. Lots of companies do websites, lots of companies do SEO, lots of companies do lots of things. So what.
Especially in the services business, it comes down not to just what you do, but the way in which you do it, the “how”. In the product business, this is not so much the case. As long as you offer a quality product at a competitive price, the “how” matters less in most cases. Quality of course is defined by the customer. I’ll keep the quality digression for another article.
I thought this was an article about custom software?
It is. Here’s where the custom software fits.
If you run a services business then your unique selling proposition is that your service is somehow a better fit for your customer’s needs than your competitor’s offering. You cannot just say this in marketing messages, it needs to be actually true. Your customer must actually receive a service that is better, faster or cheaper than the competition.
In order to make this actually true, you need to know thy customer and have a unique selling proposition to thy customer that meets their needs better than any other competitor for that customer.
If you do things in the same way with the same tools as everyone else in your industry then, unless you are competing on price, you have no differentiation from any other competitor.
At the beginning of this article I mentioned my experiences with my large global former employer. Today, they use less custom software than they had in the past; however, there are a few cases where custom software fit their business like a glove and gave them a competitive advantage.
My former employer had email way before it was widespread. We’re talking in the early 1990s when Windows was brand new. They had email on the mainframe, the AS/400 and for DOS and Macs. An internal team designed it, wrote it and supported it. Today they are on their second commercial email package since the custom package was retired in 1997. At the time they were on the custom package, they could communicate globally in a way no other competitor could. Their business processes were faster and more efficient because associates could communicate via email where others could not.
Example: Trademark Licensing Application
With a globally recognized multi-billion dollar trademark, a company must have an airtight process to manage how that asset is licensed to others for the production of licensed articles. There was no commercial software offering at the time the company decided that the information management of this important business process area needed some technology help. A small team of less than 15 designed, built and deployed a custom software solution back in 2002. As I understand it today, multiple attempts have been made in recent times to replace the custom solution with a package solution. None have been able to meet the business requirements as well as the custom solution. Without disclosing any details, what I can tell you is that the return on the investment in that custom software made over 10 years ago is still generating returns for the trademark licensing group.
Example: Custom CRM + Proposal Generation
A friend of mine works for a construction company in metro Atlanta. His company has a custom software solution that they use to create customer proposals for work projects. This software enables the sales associates to gather all the customer information and the project information in one place. A project estimator can use that information to then create project diagrams, bills of material, labor estimates and project schedules that are used to produce a very attractive proposal document for customers. Not only is the process made easier by using this custom software, but the estimates are more accurate as well. The use of custom software here has a clear impact on customer satisfaction and the company’s bottom line.
In the services industry and certain process industry, custom software solutions can give your business a competitive advantage in that it makes your unique selling proposition actual and true for the customers that you know and who trust your business to deliver on its promise. This is what good business is all about, making a good promise and delivering on it. Custom software can help a business do just that.