In this exclusive interview, Valeria Maltoni (ConversationAgent.com), Valeria talks with VentureOutsource.com about ways companies can differentiate themselves in industry and effectively communicate such distinctions through ‘conversation'.
ConversationAgent.com is recognized among the world's top marketing blogs. Valeria Maltoni is also a Fast Company Expert blogger and a contributor to The Blog Herald and Marketing Profs Daily Fix.
Read what Valeria says about Dell's successful online conversation platform; determining if your customers' decisions to ‘buy' are based on emotion or functionality, ways your company can measure communication success, and more.
VentureOutsource.com: You've defined corporate business today as a long, open conversation. As companies and their manufacturing supply chains become more global, how can corporations address the disparity in communications, especially when great distances are a factor, while remaining focused on building cohesive (global) teams that can communicate effectively and help them serve customers better?
I see the issue as twofold -- on one hand you have a more competitive environment due to global forces such as sourcing of cheaper materials and less expensive labor in low cost countries like China and India, on the other hand, you have a more empowered customer landscape, even in a B2B model. Let me address these separately.
Doing business in many countries has always represented a challenge for companies -- the cultural landscape within the employee base cannot be taken for granted. Today, internal alignment is one of the biggest challenges, especially for those organizations that have grown thanks to merger and acquisitions and are now suddenly facing a challenge to their core principles, which were rooted in the way business was conducted in the country where the company headquarters are located. Let me give you an example of how culture affects business practices.
A chemical manufacturing company with deep roots and materials sourcing in Europe, and a strong presence in the United States, is acquired by an Indian corporation. All of a sudden, a supply chain that had been run fairly predictably (based on capacity for a number of factories in one region of the world) is to switch sourcing to include a country much farther away.
Transportation issues, language barriers, and cultural differences in how the two businesses are run are only the beginning.
Now that the company is run from India, every single decision made in the countries that used to lead now need to go through an approval process not yet transparent and often discouraging. Aligning supply chain processes is only the beginning -- any delay in production will have a much greater ripple effect on customer expectations until things settle, if they ever do.
In the example above, customers have been used to a personal touch from the sales team and the product management team, as well as the supply chain. When things change for these groups and they become less involved in the day to day running of the business, the customer base experience the results -- uncertainty and lack of internal alignment will be felt externally. Hopefully, the new leadership team will invest in communications while it works out kinks in the process.
In my experience, the ‘communication' piece may not be addressed until profits begin to erode and by then it could be too late. It's a two to three year cycle of consistent dialogue to rekindle that flame, both internally and externally.
VentureOutsource.com: Company efforts geared toward building a great brand; brand recognition, and creating differentiation in a particular marketplace cannot be viewed independently when organizations are competing in hyper-competitive markets. Meanwhile, service-oriented companies such as electronics contract manufacturers or original design manufacturers (companies whose names do not appear on the products they design or manufacture) are faced with a more daunting challenge when it comes to differentiating themselves to prospective customers. What are five (5) things you feel companies can do when formulating a marketing strategy designed to help differentiate a company in its respective marketplace?
So that we're clear, a great brand is a reflection of an organization, not a program or flavor of the day. Brands are living manifestations of what companies are.
The first consideration in building a great brand is discovering, or rediscovering, what makes your organization different. What is that [one] thing that, if it went away, would be missed in the marketplace? ‘Me too' is a very slippery slope towards commoditization, especially when your product or service is not the final one that customers know and recognize. Maybe your differentiator is a process, maybe it's the relationships you have, or perhaps it's the research and development.
The second step needs to be internal alignment. I continue to be amazed at the opportunities companies miss when they do not become fanatics of their own products and services, internally. Companies need to hire people who are passionate about what they do. Companies also need to teach the whole organization to be passionate about being there - in that company.
Some companies have inspiring leaders at the top that in some ways embody the vision of where the organization wants to be and they remain because of this. It's not necessary to have stars or champions at the top -- it's certainly beneficial, but it's not required. What is required, however, is a focus on being the best at what the organization says it does (the differentiating factor). I've seen social media and collaboration platforms used successfully to allow every employee to see what is going on, to help the company in being transparent, and show where contributions matter.
Thirdly, consider how your ‘ingredient' may be the secret sauce in another company's product or service. Think, for example, how Intel created demand for its chips by building a conversation with the ultimate users. Do you check to see if a computer or notebook you're buying has Intel inside? I know I have.
If your economic output is considered a commodity, the business imperative of supply translates into availability as the consumer sensibility. For goods, the business imperative is control and the consumer sensibility becomes cost. The whole quality movement came to be when services took hold of our economic output, with improvements, as the business imperative. One step above this is ‘the experience'. Intel has told the story of how the chip inside provides a whole new experience and consumers and end-users have began to identify systems with that ingredient as authentic. The real deal.
The fourth thing to consider is to be completely aligned in all external communications. If your lead generation campaign is promoting one thing, your ads and PR strategies should match that same message. Some organizations run these activities separately or, they have an external agency run some for them.
Make sure you have one person in house who oversees the whole plan and keeps everyone straight on what the promotional message is at any given point. Your brand is the sum total of what you call yourself, what you articulate you are, where and when your customers encounter you, why you are in business and, how you show who you are.
Finally, be fanatical about measuring outcomes according to predetermined metrics. What is your definition of a lead? Are you trying to get more customers to pick up the phone and call you? How many, how frequently? Would you want to cross sell more services? Which ones, when? Then, assign value to these metrics. Measuring will be much easier if you know what you're shooting for.
VentureOutsource.com: The process used by which a customer bases his or her decision to 'buy' something (whether the item purchased is a service or, a physical product) can be distilled to being either based on emotional or functional decision drivers. Having said this, companies can create an advantage over competitors if they can determine which drivers 'drive' the decision process of their customer base - to 'buy'. Generally speaking, how might a company's marketing or brand recognition approach differ when appealing to a customer's 'emotional' buy process? How about when appealing to a customer's 'functional' buy process.
I wrote a post last November about pushing the ‘buy' button that might be of interest, here
We decide to purchase / buy on the basis of both inputs -- processing rational data plus emotions and feelings. To be most compelling, the message needs to focus on the reader or buyer. There's the famous example that we don't buy a drill, we buy a hole.
Think in terms of before and after. How can you help your customers visualize this? I also recommend the use of story, even if the story is a short paragraph with a visual that pulls at the emotional strings. Advertising should be your calling card while proof and depth can be in your Website and follow-through materials.
VentureOutsource.com: What are some of the things a company can do to help determine whether the purchasing decision process of its customer base, ultimately leading customers to make a 'buy' decision, is driven by emotions or functionality?
Use qualitative and quantitative research to test your value proposition(s). What statements resonate with customers? Would they ‘get' how your products and services are different from the ones offered by other companies jockeying for positioning? Where do they see your brand fitting in their context?
The action statement should be grounded on value propositions based on facts. Having said this, if your product and / or services need help, your energy should go to making these the best they can be while communicating / educating the public, as needed, to encourage use and recognize value.
Emotional resonance is also a product of superb delivery. Finding passionate internal and third party advocates can help the cause and raise this profile. People make connections with people.
VentureOutsource.com: What tools or methods can companies employ to obtain and leverage better customer or user insight so that they can then meet and better serve the needs of their customers?
Surveys and opportunities to provide feedback on a regular basis are helpful. Make sure to build in a mechanism to reflect the information back to your customers along with the steps you are taking to either correct something or deliver more.
Some practitioners talk about having a customer-driven approach. I would caution you on using customers that are the only metric to judge your success and develop new offerings. Your business would be well-served with a market-driven approach where customers are a large consideration, but they are not the only factor weighing in product development and company growth. The approach and answers you're looking for depend on the tools used to communicate.
If you're making use of social media, comments and involvement in the conversation as well as visits to your forum or Website can all be considered metrics. For the company Website, analyze stickiness, time per page, number of click-throughs, requests for more information. Once you open up to these types of conversations, make sure your customers are heard. It does no good to have a blog if commenting is not open to visitors. If you want to look at an example of a company doing this well, take a look at Dell with Direct2Dell.com and Ideastorm.
As I wrote at FastCompany.com, here
, these corporate online destinations are literally using social media as a way to improve their business. At my blog, I discussed how they are still working on fixing their supply chain
to shift to the retail model.
Some companies have cultures that are open to a customer advisory board. In both cases, make sure you are listening and letting your customers see what you're doing about their suggestions and advice. Going through the moves may be the most damaging thing you can do, so make sure you're ready to take all the steps necessary to have this type of conversation.
VentureOutsource.com, October 2007
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