When talking to IT vendors eager to grow their business I usually come across a number of common challenges they face. One of the biggest issues which lies outside the companies (as opposed to e. g. finance requirements to fund the growth or adding enough skilled people to their workforce) is that once they are moving out of their comfort zone they are facing prospects that are much more skeptical than those in their home markets.
It seems to be a common pattern that vendors manage to grow to a certain size (depending on the size of their home market this is often somewhere between five and twenty million dollars) and then start thinking about ways to expand further. This often is when they are confronted with the ‘real outside world’ for the first time. Before this they managed to successfully leverage their network, or simply were the vendor with an office location closest to where the customer was. This kind of home advantage usually works up to a certain point. You might be able to successfully sell to new clients based on recommendations from your network to 2nd degree connections but that’s about where it stops. When you are dealing with prospects who have never heard of you and who don’t have any other obvious connection path (be it geographically or personal) to your company the selling gets much tougher. Obviously the first thing any vendor will do is to bring his USPs to the attention of the potential buyer. But be honest: How many competitors are out there who are making similar claims in regards to their or their solution’s capabilities? At this stage it doesn’t matter if their (or your) claims are true because at this stage the only thing that matters is the question of who is going to get the chance to proof their claims either by further demonstrations, POCs, trials or ideally by closing the deal.
A similar challenge vendors are facing is connected to the deal size. A lot of customers are willing to ‘risk’ a limited amount of money on a new vendor or a solution that is new to the market. With increasing deal size this inclination to take some risk quickly declines which is why smaller or new vendors often fail to win the larger deals in the market. This is also true in regards to the ‘business criticality’ of a solution. Buying something that is a nice to have from a new vendor is much easier than buying a solution that is business critical or security relevant from an unproven source.
Credibility wins business.
With markets where there are typically multiple vendors offering multiple solutions for a problem the buyer needs to significantly narrow down the field of potential suppliers. So being on the short list for further evaluation must be the primary goal in the early stage of the sales process. This is where the topic of credibility comes into play. When competing in their home markets a vendor is virtually guaranteed to get a place on the short list. Once competing outside: Not so much. Credibility means that a potential customer has enough trust in the claims you make about your company and your solution to give you the chance to prove yourself. Having credible sales people goes a long way towards that goal but obviously they are very hard to find. In addition some customers will never accept anything coming directly from a vendor at face value. Also references help to generate trust, even though the effectiveness of a reference quickly declines when they are not meeting the criteria a specific customer is looking for. This can include the requirement for a reference from the same country, the same vertical or of similar size – or ideally all of this at the same time. And of course if you were not lucky enough to acquire the right mix of reference customers in your home market this only brings you back to the initial problem of getting new customers in the first place. So the question remains how to best handle the credibility issue.
Influencers create credibility
This is where influencer relations has its place in the marketing mix. People like journalist and industry analysts make their living from evaluating technologies, vendors and solutions. Industry analysts in particular are heavily involved in advising technology buyers in regards to their vendor selection and short list creation. With industry analyst groups such as Gartner, Forrester, IDC and Ovum influencing between 40% and 60% of commercial technology sales their market reach is much bigger than anything a midsize vendor can hope to achieve on its own. This means that being mentioned by analysts – either in written research or in 1:1 inquiries – will open up indirect access to many potential customers. Coverage in official research publications is the most powerful tool for your sales people and your marketing materials to demonstrate that your technology, company, products and service offerings and methods are highly recognized and credible.
Analysts are writing about your market, whether you like it or not. Being pro-active in reaching out to analysts gives you the strategic advantage of being able to influence their research by providing them with the insight they need, when they need it. Analyst Relations is not a billion dollar club. It is critical that analysts are well informed of your company strategy, products, and services. This needs to be an ongoing process to maintain a top-of-mind status, especially for a vendor that aims for higher name recognition and company growth. Early engagement with analysts is a great way to get analyst buy-in and top-of-mind presence to increase credibility and in turn to secure your place on the short list and to boost sales.