Borrowing attracts less comments, less attention and invites less retribution than stealing. This is as true in your everyday life as in marketing. So, find a way to borrow. Share space with channel or even competitors.
If you are a small company struggling to make an impression in a market dominated by established competitors, try to “borrow”. Create some complementary product or solution offering or find a niche where the big company is not as focused or has profitability pressures. Then “take the pain off” the big company by completing their product offering to the market that they are present but not too keen on. Very soon, you will gain market acceptance and do so without inviting retribution from your competitors.
Here’s a “big-company” secret. The big company product manager has a vested interest in ignoring the existence of small competition. His market share model, is programmed to show small but profitable growth year after year. The trick lies in how he defines his market. Do not take him on frontally and he will ignore you! Give him a reason to say that “Yes, ABC is a good product but they are in an adjacent space to our XYZ”.
Sometimes this denial-game carries on till ABC becomes really big. This is particularly true in the high tech B2B product markets, where if you really insist, all products are same or very different depending on how you define the target market and product-fit. The tendency in this market is to define markets under the product name headline; as in multimeter market or oscilloscope market. You would think that would at least make market share numbers easy to compute, but by ignoring upstarts, “too cheap”, “only local” or basically anyone that does not belong to the “club”, the product manager manages to hold on to his market share number.
Agilent Technologies woke up to the danger of National Instruments after many years of being in collective denial. NI was happy to play the game as it suited them. Generations of Agilent product managers kept pretending that NI makes only Data Acq Cards and some software which is not “quite the same thing” as measuring instruments. Classic case of headlining a market by a product name. NI did not make the mistake, it kept focusing on the market while being careful to not frontally attack Agilent till they became big enough to do so. Today, NI is bigger than 2 of the 3 business units Agilent has in terms of revenue.
So, focus on the market and solving the customer need in niches lying ignored by a big established competitor. Chances are, you will not be noticed by the competitor till fairly late.
How to increase customers and prospects
I admit it. I used the headline to draw your attention. But, really, customer acquisition, when reduced to the utmost simplicity, is all about 3 main strategies.
Beg: This is the most visible, most well understood strategy and what all salesmen are commonly if erroneously perceived to do. You will need to ask for business, for referrals, for leads. That’s obvious. You will also need to work with the channel intermediaries to get their mindshare and shelf-space.
What is critical at this stage is knowing the buying influences in the entire ecosystem, having a clear understanding of their individual pain-points and how you and your product is going to solve their problem. Then think of how you can communicate your product benefit in just a few words to your audience. If you are a startup focused on ramping up your business, focus on getting the first few apppointments, getting the first few conversations going, getting the agreements for trial-purchase and be “on message”. Flexibility lies in listening to the customer with an open mind, but not in bending with every wind or trying to be all things to all people.
Do keep in mind that what is important to your customers may not be what is the top concern with your channel.
We had once launched a platform of products which were extremely easy to assemble into a system of many parts. In the automation systems market, system integrators are major influencers and they were very thick with our competitor. All this we knew and we thought our ease of integration will be a major sales booster with the system integrator. But, the mistake we made was in not realising that the system integrators like the complexity in our competitor’s products since it makes the position of the SIs stronger. What is the role of an SI if the system is so easy to put together?!
Borrow: This is admittedly laboured. But creating partnerships is a huge deal. Try working with channel partners in shared spaces to open doors. “Borrow” contacts. Like a friend of mine who would first befriend other salesmen from other non-competing organizations to facilitate his entry into large accounts. Referrals from existing vendors are more useful than you think.
Borrowing also refers to sharing the same space, physical or mental. You can share space with your customers or competitors. If you are opening a fast food restaurant, think of an office district with huge lunchtime traffic (sharing space with customers). Or, go and open next to a Dominos or Pizza Hut outlet and serve up Indian fast food or sandwiches (sharing with competitors). Your first customers will be those that came over for Pizza and drifted in for a new experience. Hoepfully, your food and service will make them come back!
Steal: Ah! I see your eyes light up. Loot and plunder; make deep inroads into your competitors’ bases. Be warned that this is the toughest. As in society, stealing also has repurcussions! It invites retaliation from an entrenched and often bigger competition. And, it is expensive to pursue as a strategy.
Hint: Borrowing frequently leads to stealing!