Physician, Heal Thyself

I had a problem at last summer's National Center for Database Marketing conference in Chicago and thought it was due to the maturity of the database marketing business. But I just ran into the same problem at in Seattle last month. Now, I know it's structural — and serious.

Here's the problem: None of the exhibitors could explain to me what their product did and how it was better than the next guy's.

NCDM was about database services, data mining, marketing automation and customer relationship management. was about e-mail, Web-based CRM and Internet marketing. Both shows were a mess.

I devoted a lot of time to the exhibits. As a marketer, I need to know the capabilities of all the tools available to me. So I dropped by scores of booths, and asked my usual question: “What do you guys do?” Sometimes, I said, “Please, give me your elevator speech,” and sometimes, I varied that with “So how are you guys different from everyone else in this exhibit hall?”

And here's what I got: buzzwords. You know them all: customer communications solutions, value-added, mission-critical, electronic customer relationship management, data-based decision support systems, comprehensive suite of tools, real-time customer feedback solutions, e-customer intelligence, one-to-one marketing, blah blah.

When I pressed for competitive differentiation, I occasionally got something vaguely resembling a positioning statement, but it was usually pabulum, like “We're better … faster … cheaper.”

What's a marketer to do? I am a highly motivated and reasonably well-informed prospect for these people. Why couldn't they explain their value to me?

I think the marketers need marketers.

Each supplier in our industry needs to go back to basics and do the work that we are all trained to do: Analyze your market's needs, clarify how your product meets those needs and explain how it's different — OK, better — than the competition. And then make sure every piece of collateral material, home page, trade show booth sign, sales person and booth rep is communicating those messages, clearly and concisely.

Here are some rules for getting this important work done:

* Assign the job to the most senior marketing executive, the person who has buck-stopping responsibility. This should be that person's single most important homework assignment.

* Set a goal that the value proposition for the product or service be stated in no more that 3 bullet points.

* Focus on the benefits of interest to your largest audience segments. You can't be all things to all people. Attack the segments of lesser value in a separate exercise.

* Turn the bullet points into a short elevator speech. This means about 40 seconds. Time it.

* Test the speech on your friends and colleagues. The best way to make sure they get it is to see if they can paraphrase back to you the essence of your value proposition.

* Hunt and destroy any buzzwords. The speech doesn't have to be comprehensible to your mother, but neither should it cause your customer's eyes to glaze over.

* Create a succinct answer to the competitive differentiation question. Prepare a series of answers, if needed, to address various competitive segments. In this crowded marketplace, there may be dozens. Remember, competition is about perception as much as it is about reality, so make sure you are asking your customers and prospects who they think is competitive and not just relying on whom you know to be in your space.

* Review the copy used by your competitors. Make sure yours is clearer, more honest and more memorable.

* Train your staff on the speech and the competitive answers. Drill them thoroughly so they can recite the speech with a smooth and natural delivery. These words are not for just sales and marketing people, so don't neglect your public relations team, call centers, receptionists, product managers or engineers.

* Revise the speech often, in response to developments in the marketplace. But don't let it be revised by a committee, or it will turn into pabulum again.

I urge my industry colleagues to do this work and make their messages clear. Don't let another customer-facing opportunity go by without it.

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