Hi, I’m James. Thanks for checking out Building Momentum: a newsletter to help startup founders and marketers accelerate SaaS growth through product marketing.

Earlier this year I was on the Competitive Enablement Show podcast with Klue! We covered a lot of ground, talking about some successes and failures, and how I think about competitive differentiation.

Below, you’ll find an edited transcript of our chat!

What was the inspiration for starting Building Momentum?

About five or six years ago, my boss told me that I needed to write more, to grow my personal brand but also to help others in that same situation. At the time, I was like, okay, yeah, sure….

But during that time I’ve needed to learn all of this stuff to help me. I’ve been looking for stuff online to help me get through the same kind of challenges that I’m writing about now, things like:

  • How do you take a product from zero to one?
  • How do you build positioning for the first time as a first time?
  • How do you think about your sales process and start to map back to the collateral that you need?
  • How do you think about competitors?
  • How do you start to understand who could be against and how you message to that?

There are so many bits and pieces that people need on that journey. And I just decided to start writing. I actually started my Substack, I think in November or October last year. And it took me until February this year to actually publish a post.

But now I’ve been doing it since February religiously. It’s done so much. What makes it really good is that I get loads of people saying that it’s really helped them solve challenges and just learn more about what product marketing is and how to do it. So it’s really nice to see that, giving back to the community as well, and how I can help other people on that journey.

Where have you seen people fall short in terms of truly explaining how they’re different to the buyer?

I’ve seen it a lot. It’s when people are really close to the product and not necessarily in tune with what customers are thinking about. I think that one of the traps we fall into, is that we will think about how we differentiate through the lens of that product and the business, the features they’ve got, stuff like that.

But the question they should be asking is how are you different through the eyes of your customer instead of the buyer?

In most situations, your products are probably not going to be super different. You’re probably going to have, a couple of key differentiated features, but you’re probably targeting that same core group of customers as somebody else. And that means you have to work much harder to try and win them as a customer.

I think the next trap that I see a lot, is people go as far to describe the benefits their product delivers, like, how it will you save your time, do more with less, you can save money… and that’s cool, but it’s not necessarily useful.

People can still achieve those outcomes with a ton of different solutions: that might be competing products, might be people, it might be other solutions, and those benefits aren’t really going to galvanize your prospects.

They’re not really going to speed up that sales cycle, get them super excited to buy.

You’re comparing apples to apples: do you want a red one or do you want a green one?

In those kinds of situations we really have to go much further than benefits. And you’ve got to talk about the real value that someone’s going to gain when they use your product.

What’s an example of where you just were struggling to stand out?

My example is we were struggling to stand out to a customer, to the particular customer we wanted to win. I was at Kayako, which is a customer service SaaS company. I was hired there as the first product marketer.

We had big plans to reinvent the world of customer service, with a really strong vision to take it away from being a cost-center, and instead position customer service as a revenue generator.

We were building a whole new product from scratch and were really determined to fix those scenarios that we’ve all experienced: when you’re in touch with a company and, they pass you on from team to team, you have to repeat yourself all the time. You’re given a ticket number and then the customer service rep just forgets there’s an actual human behind the ticket… Those sort of experiences where you’re not treated as a real person.

So we planned our launch in advance and we followed all of the best practices that you would do to launch a product, to launch messaging and positioning. Wee did interviews, we developed messages, we tested it with our audience and so on. We launched feeling pretty good about it, super confident that we’d done all the groundwork and we’re really looking forward to just seeing everything, go up into the right.

And we landed on this really interesting messaging that spoke to the aspirations of leaders in our target companies. It was all about this new world of customer experience, and we were very excited about it. And so when we launched, we pressed, go on the platform… and everything just completely flopped.

It was awful. We’d gone from adding thousands of revenue a day with our previous product, the one we’d sunsetted, to adding zero in this new one. So two years of work down the drain, basically a total failure at launch – really bad.

We created a war room obviously, because that wasn’t good, we couldn’t sustain that started investigating what was happening.

And we found that in the interviews and research that we were doing, we found that the messaging we had developed just completely wasn’t resonating at all. So that meant people didn’t start a trial. They didn’t request demos. They didn’t buy from us.

So we looked into a bit more and started to analyze well, actually, who was that customer that we’re seeing on the website, and then the sales process, and who are the ones that we’d actually messaged to… and found they were completely different.

So we had messaged to those leaders and executives who cared about all this aspirational value, but the people coming to the website – the people that were discovering the product, taking it forward, championing it – just weren’t bothered at all. To them, our messaging, our website just looked like, meaningless marketing waffle.

There was no substance to it. It didn’t mean anything at all. They wanted tangible messaging, stuff that would speak to the pains, the problems they’re experiencing. They only need a bit of that long-term direction, but ultimately they just wanted to solve today’s pains, get those over and done with.

So we just hadn’t linked that real clear hierarchy from the features and the product that we had built, the benefits that we were delivering through those and the value they could gain.

So we’re in this war room, all sat around desks with dashboards up trying to pull together everything we had. And it was in the interviews we were running that we found our issues.

We were doing win-loss interviews anyway (if anyone’s not doing them, set them up, I’ve got a blog post on how to set that up). But they’re super, super valuable for just keeping tabs on people coming through your pipeline. What happened? Why didn’t they choose you? We literally spoke to probably a couple of hundred people in about a month or two. Just trying to find out, every lead, why did you, why didn’t you choose to go with us?

And it was in those conversations that we found, actually, yeah, like we’re not speaking to the right people. The people on the website, the people that are coming through the pipeline are, manager, titles. They’re not the executives, they’re not the directors. And it was a really quite humbling experience to have put so much energy into the process and feeling confident about it, only for it to be completely dashed at the last minute.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that whenever I do positioning now, the immediate next step is to work out what that buyer journey looks like. So mapping out all of those stakeholders that might be involved in that buying journey, and then figuring out where do you message the different levels along that journey? That’s super, super important.

What’s an example of where you had success in differentiation?

At Kayako, I was trying to learn everything as we were doing it. So I was going onto Google, talking to people and trying to figure out how to make these things happen. But at Headstart, I was able to put all of those lessons I’ve learned into practice and that was a really nice experience, comparatively.

So for context, Headstart is a diversity recruiting platform for campus recruiting teams. Big enterprise sales, hundreds of thousands of dollars in software to big 5,000 plus employee companies. And our champions at those companies we deemed as a socially conscious radical buyer.

So these were people that didn’t just care about the immediate benefits of solving those immediate problems, but they had a much longer-term strategic outlook on the overall value of our product and where it would take them as a business.

We found out through research, again, getting on the phone with people, interviewing, trying to find out, what they care about what’s going on in their lives.

And we messaged actually three different kind of frames of value in that process. Firstly was the business value: people needed their business is to be seen as innovative, to show that they were taking big public steps around diversity and inclusion in their market against their competitors.It was a big driver for their clients to be seen to be working with again, socially conscious companies.

The next frame was that kind of professional. So these people were quite savvy. They recognize that introducing those new initiatives would really help their professional standing. It would help them get the new promotion.

It would solve their team’s problems. They’d be responsible for those improved results. It would help them stand out in the job market. They could talk to something that had helped them improve the representation of their intakes and stuff like that.

And then lastly, we spoke to this kind of personal value. These people were like I said, socially conscious. They knew that diversity and inclusion is the right thing to do. They cared about all of these diversity issues. They’d experienced it. And they really wanted to do the right thing, make a real difference in the world.

And so we’re able to merge all of these bits together with a rational and a logical narrative or what I call the heart and brain narrative. The rational brain recognizes the cost savings, the ROI, the cold hard business impact. And then you’ve got this emotional heart story that, is all about the social impact and wanting to do good in the world.

And mashing both of those things was really successful from a positioning perspective and for the business results, our sales cycles and everything like that.

How do you understand the emotional side of your buyer?

The literal definition of positioning is to occupy a space in your customers.

And you’re not going to do that effectively unless you know what else is in there.

So that’s not stuff that’s just related to your product or the problem area that you’re trying to solve. What are they professional post personal goals? What do they believe in? What do they care about?

In this case, we found that these people were in this role because they wanted to make a difference to the talent. They wanted to give every graduate the best opportunities to improve their social standing. And that was one of the big levers for us that we were able to latch onto relatively early on in that process, and see that nobody else was talking about that in the market.

Everyone else was talking about the business impact. Nobody was connecting that back to “what can I, as an individual do to enact change?”. And if you think about this through the lens of 2020 with all of the racial equity protests around the world, it was super, super timely. So much of that opportunity was really heightened in the mind of the people that we were talking.

I think value is something that’s a priority for somebody, it’s something that they are motivated that to search, switch, or buy for something that they need to solve, there is a driving need behind that.

That might be something that comes from in the business. It might be a completely external factor, but there has to be that motivation in there. And if you can find that something that’s really altruistic.

Take HubSpot, for example, with their inbound marketing narrative. Of course, ads aren’t good. They’re expensive. But who wants to be pushing ads on people? You as a marketer would much rather people come to you. And that’s why I think that inbound narrative works so nicely is because it talks about what a marketer can do to improve. And enjoy and be happy at the way they’re doing marketing in a way.

How do you figure out what a buyer deem valuable to them?

It’s all about what the value is.

So a value is an element that your customer wants to gain. So it has to be useful to them. It’s got to be worth the efforts (i.e., worth the money, the time, or the energy), and it’s gotta be a priority for them. Ideally, that value that your customer is going to gain is going to pass all three of those tests.

And the way I’ve found best to discover them starts with super broad customer development, persona research. I think it’s disheartening to see how many companies will talk to customers to sell them or support them, but won’t necessarily talk to them just for learning opportunities, just to, find out what’s going on in life for them.

So I think a lot more people could do that.

What are two or three of the most important or valuable questions that you ask a customer to do like to learn from them?

I’ve got a blog post that lists out 19 different questions, so picking two is quite difficult for me. I think they’re all super, super valuable.

But if I absolutely had to, the first would probably be asking customers how they’ve attempted to solve their problems so far.

And the reason I love that is because you can then start to dig into, how did they solve it or how did they try to, why did it fail? What worked for them? What works you know what didn’t work? Why do they like it? Why didn’t they like it? And you’ll find out so much juicy stuff. You will start to understand, what competitors they’ve used, the processes they’ve trialed and failed at when you use it in sales conversations.

In discovery calls, for example, you also learn where the gaps were in that experience for you to lock up and seal the deal almost really valuable.

I think my second question would be “what’s changed in the last five years that makes our product so much more valuable?”. And that’s really nice for discovering this world change, if you read Andy Raskin’s narrative medium posts, but it’s really useful discovering all of these different trends that are on people’s minds and changes in their world that you might not have thought about at all. It provides a ton of insight into future opportunities for direction, for product, for marketing, for sales.

And you can also follow up with, “what’s going to change in the next five years?”. So you’re going to get ahead of the game. You’re going to be able to ask, from their current pains, their current context, the problems they’ve got right now, what is going to affect that’s going to prevent them, or maybe help them to be more successful and you can work all of that into your plans as well.

How do you merge customer value and the competitive landscape together?

My philosophy, for want of a better word, is that the dominant partner in the market equation is the demand side, is the customer.

And if we can accurately understand the market (which is a group of similar people that have similar pain points or problems that they’re willing to solve to pay to solve for), then that is much more stronger, and almost a shortcut (in context of early stage B2B companies) to momentum.

I think competitors come really into their own when you have that positioning and you’re looking for opportunities, what are the unmet needs? The unmet values that your customers just aren’t served by in the market.

Again, where are the gaps? There’s a really good book about blue ocean strategy: what are you, what could you do that your competitors aren’t doing? How do you fit that on its head?

And if you’ve got that and it’s backed up in evidence by your customers (what you’ve learned from them and what’s going on for them), that puts you in a really good position.

What’s a value nugget, and how have you used it successfully?

So this is something I started playing around with when I was at Kayako, basically in that horror story of a failed product launch.

We needed a way to link the features, to benefits, to the value that people were trying to gain from us. And so a value nugget is basically a way to package those bits up and provide a really clear hierarchy as well, so that you can use it in sales conversations or in marketing material. It makes a really good layout for a webpage, for example.

It’s comprised of those three bits in total. Firstly, what’s the value, the attribute or state that a buyer hopes to obtain?

The value is made up of one or more benefits: the advantage that a buyer gets when using a product. So it’s something that’s tangible that you can report on it, for example, usually, or it starts with a verb. And so an example might be, save time, increase customer satisfaction, increase, win rates, that kind of stuff. Those benefits gained by one or more features.

Again, you’re able to see this kind of hierarchy. Value is delivered by the benefit, which is delivered by a feature. And so that might be a specific piece of product functionality. It might be something less obvious, like an integration or a report, or it might be something that you wouldn’t think of, like a modern, clean UX, a design consideration, or, even service support, dedicated account managers, service features.

And then in the post you can find one of the things that I really like about it, is being able to move up and down that value nugget by asking why on the journey up and then how on the journey down. And this is good because it forces me to think about making it easy to navigate, but also ensuring that there’s real tight alignment between the features you’ve got and the value you say that you’re going to deliver.

And so it’s really key to building that cohesive narrative, and make sure that you’re not just selling your product, but then you can work backwards and start to build what you sell as well.

I used that at Kayako. I’ve used it everywhere since then, so it’s battle tested.

I did a blog post talking about Xerox and a story from the Challenger Customer book. If you’ve not read it, it’s where Xerox went from selling printers to K-12 school districts previously based just on their functionality — so printing color, that kind of stuff — to selling instead on how those printers led to increased student performance.

And so that’s quite a jump to say, “our printers are going to help you deliver better school results, increase your performance”, but is a really good story of using that research, discovering these kinds of unmet needs, being creative with messaging, and then, ultimately all holds up in this value nugget framework.

And so the example, one of their features is the ability to print full color workbooks. And so if we’re going to use the ‘why’ on the way up, why is that useful? That’s because it’s proven to encourage higher student performance.

Okay. So that’s great. And why is that important? Because it provides the best possible educational experience while managing budget pressures.

And so then we can ask how on the way back down, and one of the other benefits that is supporting that value. So the budget piece, how does it help support budget pressures? Because those educators can incorporate color without adding costs and how, because they have a on demand print feature.

And so when it’s laid out, you can go and find that on my newsletter, but you can see this transition really nicely all the way from those features to benefits, to value and all the way back down again, nicely packaged up.

And what I like about it as well is that it’s easy to train that narrative with sales teams. I found people pick it up really easily, especially you can give them a little cue cards for that kind of stuff.

And also for consistency, once you’ve got this real tight defined narrative that you’re using, you get everybody talking the same consistent story. And I think that’s always a good thing,

How do you track and think about lesser-known competitors?

So I think in some situations it’s helpful to think less about the terminology of competitors and more about, alternative solutions.

It’s broader. It gets us thinking about the companies we compete with day-to-day and gets us instead thinking about the solutions that people might be using to achieve those similar kinds of outcomes.

So some of them will be those direct competitors. They’re obvious, you’re familiar with them. You compete with them in most deals. You probably might also find these kinds of super niche solutions that might be set up just for one type of customer, or one really specific use case. I find that most companies will have them on that radar and individually they are not a big threat.

But when you look at them as a kind of lumped group, a single chunk on your market pie chart, that group is probably going to be bigger than you think. And I think most people should think about that a bit more.

How do you tackle a bigger number of smaller competitors?

It is tricky because of the volume of them. This is why, (again, caveating early-stage B2B) is that by focusing on the customer that you are best set up to win now, or in the near term is a shortcut to that kind of stuff.

So rather than focus on potentially all of the potential competitors, you’re much more focused in who your customer is. And that helps you build momentum through that.

I think it’s also interesting if you think not just about the software solutions as well, that compete with, so there are tons of other people-powered, but also other solutions that companies might have already that you also competing with that you just wouldn’t think about, homegrown solutions and, for example, there’s always a developer that thinks they can build whatever they need in a week.

There are going to be some businesses that have JIRA, for example, really big, heavy features that a marketing team might want to use a Asana, but they’re probably not going to get approval for that at all. If you’ve got a recruiting team willing to use Greenhouse and the company is paying for the Workday HRIS platform? Probably not going to happen.

So you’re competing with software already in house, these kind of existing vendors. Then you’ve got all the people: freelancers, consultants, agencies. Actual people, employees who can solve the same problem just through, data entry, for example or customer support, assigning tickets.

For example, in customer service, there are software solutions that can automatically assign conversations to the right people, depending on all of these factors. Most companies will just have one person or two people assigning tickets to individuals instead. It’s probably more expensive in the long run, but they just don’t know that another thing exists out there to solve that.

And so when we kind of position against these non-software competitors, we get an opportunity to be much more creative. The process is still the same: understand what unmet value that customer wants to have. And then in the actual execution you can get away from differentiation against products, because there’s not another product that you’re competing against.

It’s a trying to make sure that this person knows that you exist, that you can solve their problems. So you’re not trying to eke out the slightest element of feature differentiation. And instead, you’ve got this huge canvas to explore. And there’s so much opportunity within that to really speak to that core value that your customers really hoping to wants to needs to attain in their day-to-day.

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One Reply to “Podcast: What does it take to differentiate?”

  1. […] of the podcast and conference opportunities I’ve had in 2021, like Spill The Marketing Beans, The Competitive Enablement Show, and the Product Marketing Summit. If you run a podcast or looking for conference speakers, […]

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