Let's assume someone really good-looking swept you off your feet with promises of a life of bliss. You dated, got engaged, and then tied the knot.
About five minutes after you left the church together in your limo, your new spouse suddenly turned into the ugliest, meanest, rudest person you had ever met. A broken heart and many months later, you were free, and you vowed to yourself: "Never again."
This is the mindset of today's software buyer. Especially those considering big-ticket, enterprise-wide programs.
These people are Skeptical, with a capital S. They have already been badly burned by "revolutionary" systems like CRM and ERP. Some of them almost killed their own companies trying to put these systems into place (and almost did it again when they had to remove those same systems).
Think you can impress these buyers with flowery promises? Not anymore. Think they'll believe that "It will be different this time - we will actually take care of you?" Ha! Think you're going to convince someone to champion your solution to their CEO? Dreamer!
They don't trust any promises; too many promises have been broken by everyone in the software business, from Microsoft (the biggest promiser and promise-breaker of all time) on down.
No wonder it's so tough to sell software.
Before we talk about the solution, we need to look at one other reason that enterprise-wide sales are so tough to close: the Little Black Mark syndrome.
People who work in corporations walk around with a small white board on their chests. When they start the job, the board is clean. After a while, the mistakes inevitably occur, and Little Black Marks start to show up on the white board. They remain there forever, as long as the person is working at the company. Every time that person walks into a meeting, everyone thinks, "Oh, yeah. That's Jack. He's the one who sent his 'isn't the CEO a jerk' emailto the entire executive team by mistake."
No one wants to be the sap who "champions" a product, only to have it shot down in flames. They may look at your product, and talk to others about your product, but they're not going to be its champion. That's why "viral marketing" doesn't really work in the enterprise world. Employees in large companies avoid taking risks.
Sellers from smaller entrepreneurial companies who are trying to sell their software into large bureaucratic companies have a hard time understanding how much these white boards influence the sale. They take risks every day.
What's the solution? How do you sell in the Skepticism Swamp?
Three basic ways:
1. Care about them.
They aren't going to buy something important from anyone who doesn't care about them. If all you care about is you, you won't get very far with today's customer. You can't fake this. Put your own anxiety aside and start listening. Understand what they are really saying. What is the real problem they're trying to solve? Can you help them solve it? If not, don't push. If you can, great. Proceed. But...proceed carefully. Which brings us to #2.
2. They're very ill. Feed them slowly. Start out with a nice, small appetizer. Make it easy for them to take it in a forkful at a time. Yes, you'll have to sit on your hands while they thoroughly chew every bite. But they're just not going to wolf down a banquet in one sitting. They got sick every time they did that, and they learned their lesson.
Everything about your selling and marketing - and how you price and package your product - should be modular and designed to take them to the next step, a little bit at a time. Do whatever you have to. Split your product into modules they can buy separately. Let them try before they buy. Create a "light" version.
Take hints from the inexpensive software programs, which often let you see screens or download a trial version before you commit. Customers really can't tell if a program will work as promised - and do what they want - until they start working with it.
Make it easy for them to see the screens and download a module, light version, or trial copy. Assume you will have to prove yourself over and over, with each interaction. They will never trust you completely, but they will trust you enough to let you take the next step.
3. Be flexible. A software company CEO and his VP of Sales recently asked me if I thought they should offer their product via unhosted subscription, hosted subscription, or seat licenses. "Everyone wants it a different way," they complained. "Which should we offer?" My answer: "All of the above."
If that's howyour customers want to buy, who are you to make it difficult? Your customers are the ones with the money, you're the one with the product. Make it easy for them to buy! If you aren't set up to give them a hosted subscription, and they want one, don't be stupid - get a server and a server guy! Outsource it! Do whatever you have to do. If being able to offer it the way they want it means you'll make the sale, what's stopping you?
No question about it: It's a swamp. But there's hope.
The Skepticism Swamp was filled by B.S. - grandiose promises callously made by people who had no intention of keeping them; by media storms; and by unclear strategies. It was created by people dirtying the waters with manipulation and greed. By programmers telling salespeople, "Sure, we can do that," when they should have said, "I think we can do that, but it will take six months and cost $300,000." By "heroes" coming in to revolutionize the business world with some great new system that couldn't even share data between applications. By magazines breathlessly pushing the latest program sold by (surprise!) one of their big advertisers. By sellers ignoring the power of the embedded base, behaving as if their program was being sold into - and would operate in - a non-networked environment. By marketers writing copy that slyly avoided the product's weaknesses, in the hopes that the customer would be stupid. And on and on and on.
You can pretend that it's 1986 and the PC has just come out and no one has been burned by technology - yet. You can dream that Silicon Valley is still mostly orchards basking in the sun, and no one lost half their 401K in the dot-bomb disaster. You can pretend that customers don't have the Internet to research even the most obscure product or topic, that you don't have to compete with everyone in the world selling your type of solution, that the swamp isn't filled with competitive and regulatory alligators, and that your customers would love to spend at least 20% of their working day trying to make your technology work.
You can also pretend that you're going to make a lot of sales. But you'll be wrong.
Want to sell in the real world? Make it easy for people to understand what you're selling, spelling it out in clear and carefully organized language. Interview your customers personally to know what their concerns are, then write copy that honestly and efficiently addresses those concerns. Most importantly, make it easy for them to take a little step, experience success, and then take another.
If you do all this, you will be able to lead them out of the Skepticism Swamp. And if you truly keep your promises, and take care of them after the sale, the entire software industry will start to heal, one satisfied customer at a time.
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Economies are driven primarily by consumer beliefs and behaviors. When consumers are confident, they buy more. That's why economists watch consumer confidence levels. But that one measurement doesn't tell the whole story.
The real source of consumer confidence
A large portion of consumers are workers, employed by a company. Their confidence is directly linked to the confidence level of their boss. Workers watch their bosses carefully. If the boss is worried about the future, and openly agonizing about competition, slow sales, or too-high expenses, the worker is going to play it safe and hang on to his money.
He'll nurse his old car along; he won't buy a new house; and he'll resist making other purchases until his boss' attitude changes. He will also be more careful with the company's money. He'll watch his business spending. He'll take longer to make decisions, dragging out the buying process.
His boss, the company's owner, is also a consumer - of both consumer and business-to-business products and services. In addition to having an impact on the behavior of their employees, CEOs and the world's growing league of small business owners have a direct impact on the economy. They play a significant role as their company's top dog, and as consumers in their own right.
That's why it is so important to look at the behavior of company owners. Understanding their beliefs and behaviors will help you approach them properly. If you don't understand what they're going through, and why they're behaving as they do, you'll have a hard time selling to them - or to the consumers who work for them.
Three states: Cowering, Coasting, Charging
We live in a news-dominated environment. We are aware of events occurring all over the world, as they happen. Business owners also follow the news - in fact, their success depends on "reading" the market, so they pay close attention to world events. They also carefully watch changes in regulations; major industry, consumer, and competitive trends; and overall consumer perceptions.
What they see, and how they interpret it, determines how they behave. Their behavior falls into three distinct categories:
Something has made them decide that they had better hunker down and shift into risk-averse mode. It doesn't matter much what puts them in this state of mind; what matters is they aren't going make any major buying decisions during this time.
If they do buy something, they are going to make sure that they won't regret it afterwards. They will get plenty of input on all significant decisions.
During a Cowering period, your sales cycles will be agonizingly slow. Your own cash will be tight; you'll soon be doing exactly what your customers are doing. This is the classic recessionary downward spiral.
To make more sales during these periods, you must focus on being the "safe purchase." This is always a good strategy, but it's especially important during slow periods. Rather than being seen as the new kid on the block, you need to be the seen as the established, bugs-worked-out company that has many satisfied customers and will stand behind its product. You must also be able to answer their most pressing question: "What's going to happen to me after I buy?" Gently but persistently continue to contact the prospect to see if you can answer any further questions or provide data for any new people getting involved in the decision-making process.
This kind of gentle nudging requires a "nurturing" salesperson rather than a "hunting" salesperson. During a Cowering phase, the customers' agonizingly slow decision-making process will drive a "hunting" salesperson crazy. He isn't naturally patient. As a result, you'll lose sales to competitors - sales you should have gotten - because your "hunting" salesperson is pushing and then giving up. Instead he needs to be patient and pleasantly persistent. Teach your hunters how to calm down a little. It will pay off.
Studies analyzed by Mac McIntosh, a top sales lead consultant, have shown that 25% of the customers who express an interest in a type of product will buy within six months. You'll want to be the one they chose - because you kept in touch. You'll have fewer leads in the pipeline during this time. That's why it's more important than ever to make sure that you guide as many sales through to completion as possible.
It's October, 2004. The presidential election mud-slinging is in full swing. No matter which side they are on - "red" or "blue" - company owners are wondering: "How is this going to turn out?" They're not really working. They're watching and waiting. We are a society obsessed with resolution. We want tough situations to have a happy ending. Even an undesirable ending is better than no ending.
When things are still up in the air, people still come to work and go through the motions, but they also spend hours each day thinking about the issue and discussing it - in the hallway, in emails, in online discussion lists, and on the phone. The Drudge Report is just a click away at work, the radio continues to provide coverage for them as they drive to and from work, and the TV and the Internet provide more details when they get home.
Unresolved, non-work issues run the gamut: critical military battles, high-profile murder trials, elections, and major disasters. Rubber-necking and discussions about current events have become as much a part of our working lives as email and the Web.
During these periods, company owners are just as likely to be distracted as their workers, but they also know they have to keep the company running. They resent the fact that their workers are distracted, and they start throwing their weight around. They push employees to get back to work. Their own focus is on production, not purchases. They can see that their customers are also distracted, so their own sales are slow. The last thing they want to do when sales are slow is make a significant purchase.
To make sales when people are coasting, you need to stay "top of mind." You need to use classic stay-in-touch methods using the usual vehicles - email, letters, "just checking to see if you need anything" calls from the sales force, and so on. However, you can't "push." It won't sit well with your distracted buyer. Your best bet is to become a welcome distraction.
Every contact should be an appreciated contact. Either you are matter-of-factly informing your customer of a new opportunity (keep it very, very brief), or you are making them aware of information that they would find useful. (Not information that you think they should know, but information that they would truly appreciate. There's a difference.)
How do you know what they'll find useful? Ask them! As your salespeople and service people talk to customers, have them ask one question for an entire month: "What's your biggest challenge right now?" You will find a common thread in these answers, and you will be able to then figure out how you can help them solve that problem - either with your product, with information about your product, or with information about a solution that has nothing to do with your product. The helpful assistance you provide will be appreciated and noted by your customer.
Even when people are coasting, they still have deadlines they must meet and projects they must complete. They will break out of their coasting mode for brief periods. You want to be top of mind when they decide it's time to get that project done or to make a decision. "I've got to talk to an SEO vendor, today," the webmaster will be thinking. "I'll contact the company that has been sending me those interesting emails about SEO results."
When company owners start charging, the economy shifts into high gear. Suddenly they're not afraid to make decisions. Suddenly they're not distracted. Suddenly they are obsessed with beating their competition, owning their market, and making this their "best year ever."
It appears to us that company owners shifted into full Charging mode on November 3, the day after the elections. Yes, they were distracted by the holidays and then by the terrible tsunami. But their basic attitude now is that they must win, and it's time to get going.
Charging periods are times of expansion and risk-taking. You won't see the heady days of the dot.com era this time; that was driven mostly by fifty-something, self-made-guys giving too much money to twenty-something, just-starting-out guys. It was also a classic technology boom-bust-modest growth cycle that we experienced repeatedly in the high-tech market. It was just played out on a much larger scale.
The executives in charging mode now are wiser than those just-starting-out guys; in fact, many of them are those guys, but they're a little older and a lot more seasoned. Steady growth is always the best growth; barring another major distraction, this year should be a solid growth year.
To make sales during this Charging period, you will have to focus on intelligent implementation. Your buyers are better informed than ever, and very skeptical. They will pay close attention to the difference between what you promise and what you deliver. They will want to work with salespeople who are organized and knowledgeable - and equipped with tools that properly answer all of their questions. They will want your website to be concise, relevant, and informative. They will have no patience for anything less.
Your salespeople should already have sensed that the environment has changed. If they are not seeing any change in the enthusiasm of your buyers right now, you may have a more serious problem. Your river of revenue may have dried up for some reason. You will need to shift into research mode to figure out what is really going on. (My book provides precise instructions on how to do this.)
Even if you're not selling directly to company owners and top managers, their confidence level will affect your sales. If they're cowering, their employees - the consumers who shop for groceries, clothing, cars, houses, and business products and services - will be cowering as well. If they're coasting, you can bet their employees are coasting even more. If they're charging, your sales potential is at its peak. Get moving. Make hay while the sun is shining, because it won't stay out forever. In today's news-driven world, a single monumental event can send your buyers back into Cowering or Coasting mode.
Keep an eye on company owners. Make a note of the "boss confidence level." Be ready to adjust your methods accordingly, because if you're not in sync with their frame of mind, you won't sell as much - to the boss or to anyone who works for a boss.
It's finally becoming clear to everyone that marketing is not about relationships. Customers don't want relationships with sellers. Instead, they want to be able to find a product or service, get their questions answered, and make a purchase - without being forced into a "relationship." No one wants the local car dealer showing up for dinner. It was sellers who wanted a relationship, as if they could somehow magically make a customer loyal for life.
"Marriages" don't happen in the world of commerce. In real marriages - the romantic, lifetime kind - the partners stick it out through thick and thin. Commercial "relationships" are really one-night stands. One partner provides the goods, and the other partner pays the money. If the provider of the money isn't satisfied with the goods, he'll go find another partner.
If not relationships, what is marketing about?
Marketing is about giving customers what they want. That's it. Company owners who know what customers want will sell more. Company owners who don't know what customers really want will have great difficulty attracting customers. They will sell less. "That's obvious," you may be thinking. But here's the problem. All of us who own companies tend to assume we know what customers care about. We are often wrong. I have asked hundreds of CEOs to tell me the top ten things that matter to their customers. Then I have interviewed their customers. The customer's list is always different from the CEO's list.
Sure, some of the same items are on the list. But they are never, ever in the same order. The CEO's #1 item might be #9 on the customer's list...or not on the list at all. And, the absolute, must-have, won't-buy-without-it feature that sits at the top of the customer's list may not be on the CEO's list. And if it is on the CEO's list, it's just another item. It's not perceived as the relevant item.
Why is it more important than ever to know what is relevant to customers?
Because search marketing is where current market battles are being fought.
Marketing has always been like this - new marketing vehicles come of age, and get hot. Everyone flocks to them, hoping that this new vehicle will be the one that finally makes marketing a no-brainer. The vehicle becomes more saturated, experts (good and bad) emerge, competition for eyeballs and brains intensifies, and then the vehicle slowly settles back into its long-term place in the mix.
This has clearly happened with direct mail, advertising, PR, websites, and email. Now it's happening with search engines, both for organic (non-paid) and paid results. Search engine marketing has more potential than previous marketing vehicles because it actually has the ability to reach your buyer at the precise moment when the buyer is interested in your product. However, just as with any other marketing vehicle, you can waste money on it if you don't understand how it really works.
Here's some advice that will help you avoid wasting money - and get the best results - from your search marketing.
1) Be specific. If you are a local company, selling to local customers, your search strategy should include geographical descriptors (towns, counties, states, large nearby cities, etc.). It's not just "tennis racquets," (or, the popular misspelling, "tennis rackets"); it's "tennis racquets Atlanta."
If you sell a certain type of product within an industry, don't waste your time trying to "own" the industry term ("tennis"); there are so many other reasons people would type "tennis" that have nothing to do with buying a racquet, such as finding out who's playing at Wimbledon. But do make sure you know how people search for your specific type of product ("Liquidmetal tennis racquets").
You can use the more general words in your website metatags (code at the beginning of a page that is not displayed when the page is displayed in a browser). But for your paid ads and associated landing pages, be very specific.
2) Don't just depend on keyword tools to find out how people search for your type of product. ASK CUSTOMERS what their search terms would be! Yes, there are excellent keyword tools available, such as Wordtracker and the tools available through Google and Overture. But if you rely on them exclusively, you may miss important opportunities. For example, customers may be considering a use for your product that you are not even aware of.
There are other reasons to talk to customers. You are likely to think of your product in terms of the name of the product, whereas the customer is looking for a solution to a problem. Or, you may use an "insider" term for your industry ("computer-aided design"), whereas the customer will type in a phrase that describes the work he wants to do ("software for designing a gear").
Ask your customers to tell you what they would type into a search engine if they were looking for your kind of product again. Ask prospects the search words they used to find you. If everyone in your company asks this question every time they talk to a customer for the first time, you'll be able to keep track of the most important search terms, even as they change over time. You won't be blind-sided.
Another wise way to get valid search term input is to show prospects a list of search phrases and discuss the list with them. You will be surprised. Andy Mindlin, president of RealWorld Marketing, does this for his clients. He recently used this technique as part of his effort to move a client from #69 in unpaid search results to the #1 position.
When Andy shows the search term list to customers, they often say, "Yeah, sure, a lot of these words make sense. But THIS word - THIS is the one I'd type in. Because if your product doesn't have THIS capability, I'm not even interested." These are the all-important "gating terms." You must know what they are. People have learned how to narrow their searches so that they only get the results they want, and avoid sifting through all those related-but-not-applicable results.
If I were buying a new laptop computer, for example, I'd use the word "pointing stick" in my search phrase, because I won't buy a laptop that doesn't have a pointing stick. The laptop has to pass that test before I consider all other features. "Pointing stick" is the go/no-go issue in my laptop buying process, the gating term.
3) Avoid search engine vendors who promise to place you in hundreds of search engines. The true search experts will tell you this is a waste of time, and they're right. According to PlanetOcean, the top search engines represent more than 95% of all search traffic. "The top search engines today are
like the top TV networks were in the 70's; that's where all the search power is concentrated," says Anne Holland, CEO of MarketingSherpa, which offers a Search Marketing Metrics Guide.
The two top search engines are Google (of course), which supplies results for itself plus AOL, Earthlink, AT&T and others; and Yahoo!, which feeds results into its own portal, plus Goo, Espotting, MSN, About, HotBot, Overture, and others. Other search engines include Ask Jeeves, AllTheWeb, and Teoma. MSN has a new engine in beta that was recently reviewed by Walter Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal, who said it "shows signs of becoming a very serious challenger" to Google. We'll see. As Walt also mentions, Google isn't standing still.
4) Assume search marketing will be an intense, resource-sapping endeavor. Whether you use an outside expert, or manage your search engine activities in-house, expect it to cost you.
Search marketing isn't rocket science, but it requires diligence, research, analysis, and constant testing. Search marketing is a fast-moving area, driven by keyword bidding and easy access to competitive data. For example, you can see the keywords your competitors use in their metatags, just by clicking on "view source" in your browser when you're visiting their site. (But don't assume your competitors know what they're doing. There are a lot of companies just flailing away at search marketing right now.) Also, don't assume that what you're looking at is the real code. They may be using a technique called "cloaking," where the real code is hidden.
Someone needs to be responsible for optimizing your website for search engine rankings, managing and continually improving your pay-per-click (PPC) ads, and creating custom landing pages for the people who respond to your paid ads. Lead-to-sales tracking should be built into your program and managed properly as your search marketing program expands.
As a side note, the paid ad programs offered by Google and Overture are a great testing ground for new products and marketing messages. In a matter of hours or days you can see which search terms and copy are pulling the best. However, be aware that there is such a thing as "click fraud," where a competitor (or someone hired by a competitor) clicks repeatedly on your ad. We'll talk about click fraud in upcoming posts.
Google's pay-per-click program is very automated; it's easy to get started. You just establish an account and begin creating ads. Overture's process is more complicated. They charge a startup fee and require the acceptance of a 17-page agreement. The sales rep creates a custom proposal, which includes recommended search terms and pay-per-click cost estimates.
5) Face the fact that landing pages are where the rubber meets the road; the more relevant the landing page, the higher the conversion rate. As Brad Fallon, founder of SEO Research says, "Prospects who arrive on your website looking for a particular product, service, or topic are more likely to stay and become a lead if they perceive that the site specializes in that product, service, or topic." Brad advises that you create many targeted landing pages.
6) In your pay-per-click ads, match the ad headlines andBODy copy to the keyword, and use the keyword again in the headline of your landing page. Your prospect will be continually encouraged as he follows the pathway you have laid out for him. He will always feel he has "come to the right place."
7) Follow THE CUSTOMER'S buying process, not your selling process. If you understand and support the customer's actual buying process, you will sell more. If you assume you know how customers buy your product, you will be trying to lead them in one direction when they really want to go in another direction. You will both lose. They won't find what they want, and you won't sell it to them.
That's why my book, Rivers of Revenue, explains customer buying processes in detail. It shows you how to map out the buying process for your own products and services. Search engine marketing assumes that the customer already has a need, and is already searching for a solution. You want to get right in sync with her and walk with her to the completed sale. You don't want to do anything to distract her, slow her down, or irritate her. You want to help her buy from you.
Search engine marketing is here to stay; many CEOs and their marketers are pulling dollars from other marketing vehicles and putting them into search marketing. But it's also a rapidly evolving medium, in its "hot star" stage. (On the StepForth news site, they warn that, "The following articles are often time-sensitive due to changing search engine conditions. If an article is more than a week old, there is a good chance that portions of an article will be out of date.")
Expect that you and your marketing people will have to stay in hyperlearning mode for a while, until the star cools down a bit. Even then, your search phrase strategy will change fairly frequently as your customer needs change, as competitors come into your market, and as the search engines develop new ways to produce more relevant and helpful results.