Who Controls Your Customer’s Workflow?


The way that you service and deliver the order you have today is a powerful multiplier of your marketing. This isn’t news. Businesses have always been aware of the significant (and highly cost-effective) influence of word of mouth and raving fan customers.

As the world becomes more digital, more socially networked and more mobile, what is news is that the dividing line between your last sale and your next one has become so thin and transparent that it hardly exists. The disruptive effect of market-and customer-facing applications is changing the game — actually, it has already changed the game.

A number of key factors are intersecting in both B2B and B2C channels, accelerating the importance of a digital strategy to grow your business.

  1. A more digitally connected market ensures that effective competitive advantages (for you or your competitors) are communicated through your market with unprecedented speed.
  2. The acceptance of Software as a Service (SaaS) models over installed enterprise software opens enormous opportunity to provide (and therefore control) important tools that help your customers not just buy your product, but actually do their jobs.
  3. The embracing of mobile apps in our day-to-day personal lives removes friction from embracing them in our work lives.
  4. The BYOD (bring your own device) trend at work makes mobile app technology ubiquitously available — regardless of whether or not the enterprise sees the value in making their workforce mobile.
  5. The ecosystem of application development — sophisticated developer tools, Internet connectivity, cloud infrastructure, open source, and the ubiquitous use of web and mobile applications — means that it is cheaper than ever before to automate business value and leverage it across even more users.

Collectively, what this means is that companies have the opportunity to create and own important chunks of their customer’s day-to-day activity in ways that all but guarantee that the product and service purchase decisions involved are already made before the customer even realizes it.

The next deal that your sales force wants to work on may already be closed before you ever hear about it. The power of these forces is already obvious in B2C applications. Apple owns music sales to all of its customers, but not because they are savants of the music and entertainment industry. They own iTunes® as your music manager, and they own your music player through your iPhone® or iPod®. Tower Records never had a chance —, even if they knew the music industry better.

Google defended its ownership of the search market by making sure that they own a substantial chunk of the devices on which you will do your searching via their Android™ product. The alternative to building and giving away the Android operating system was to watch Apple reach out and own that business, too, because of their ownership of the ecosystem in which that product is delivered.

Owning the B2B Sale

The earliest plays, and therefore the biggest wins in this model, are in digital products. But there is no natural boundary around this disruption — that’s just where it starts. These same forces are at work in B2B.

A consulting business becomes the default owner of consulting service contracts at a company if they own the software and management system into which that consulting expertise is captured and applied at their customer organization. A construction materials company owns the materials sale if they own the specifying and engineering approval process. A hardware device manufacturer owns the hardware sale if they own the software system that integrates and manages those devices in the enterprise.

There is an ecosystem of work and decisions that surrounds and wraps your product — whatever it is. Whoever owns that ecosystem has significant control of the evaluation and purchase decisions that are made around your product. The net effect of this is that a supplier can become entrenched and embedded at a company at an entirely new level. The threat to your next lead generation activity, the threat to your next sale, the threat to your next customer acquisition didn’t start when the customer decided to start the purchase evaluation — it started when they made their last purchase, and the one before that, and the one before that.

Embedding Core Value

If you don’t want to be the company sitting on the sidelines, you need to embed your core value in your customer’s daily activity. Marketing and sales — business generation — is a battle that must be won both at the key supplier evaluation moments (which become fewer and further between when a supplier owns the ecosystem) and every day that the customer uses your products and services.

So what are the hurdles to owning that ecosystem? What are the special difficulties in B2B?

First: This is a marketing problem and a sales problem and a product development problem — and that means it’s a strategic problem. You do not want to be the general who is trying to figure out how to win an air war with infantry maneuvers.

Second: It is critical to understand that your business has certain critical assets — crown jewels — that make up its unique core value in the market. It is these assets that lead to the product designs, service models and logistical advantages that differentiate you today. But the current offerings are just an expression of those unique values. There is an essential and codifiable aspect to your assets that can also be expressed. This includes:

  1. Data you have that no one else does
  2. Expertise that can be expressed as business rules (like Google’s search algorithm)
  3. A fanatical commitment to customer service that no one else can match
  4. A focus on making a real-world result that’s easier, faster, better

Find your core value. Forget about the products you have today and how to extend and enhance them; instead, think about it this way: If your customer had absolute control and an unlimited budget, what problems would your customer have you solve for them? Somewhere in this broader outside-in view is an ecosystem you can own.

Bringing Your Organization Together to Execute

Once you are tracking to the ecosystem and the core value you can bring to bear, you still have to execute. If you are a general manager or CEO, you are in pretty good shape to get started. You can align your product, IT, marketing and sales organizations to collaborate on the goal, and you can recognize and bring in the outside expertise you need to achieve the vision. If you are a layer or two down from there, you will need to play the influencer role.

In tangible B2B products, there is rarely a czar of the whole market experience who is charged with the responsibility and given the authority to define the whole market experience. It is often either up to the CEO (for whom that focus is essential, but only part of their concerns) or to a consensus and collaboration of peers who may or may not be territorial as the solutions cross marketing, sales, IT and product boundaries.

Marketing and sales have the motivation (either through vision or competitive crisis) to identify and tackle this issue, but they seldom have the budget or time scale to get it done. Marketing and sales are generally held accountable to immediate horizon results. Expenditures they make are supposed to pay off right now, this year. They are given a budget for the year that is expected to generate sufficient sales in the immediate future, and only sometimes get license for longer-term investments (e.g., a complete new website, a serious re-branding effort, etc.).

Product / service R&D and operations have the budget scale and the longer-term horizon for their investments to tackle the problem. They also often have thought leaders who understand the larger context of the products and services ecosystem, but they don’t often think about the digital extensions of the product or about controlling the ecosystem around the product. And they rarely have the mandate to think beyond what will be built and delivered in-house with core expertise.

IT has the experience and expertise to understand technology capabilities and competencies, but doesn’t have the motivation of marketing and sales, the thought leadership of the product / service organization, the user experience expertise to execute. And most often of all, they don’t have the bandwidth and budget for this kind of initiative balanced against mission-critical enterprise operational projects.

You will need to either:

1. Spread the vision to your peers or executives for a larger effort.
2. Get the ball rolling and scope a minimum viable product (MVP) that you have the budget and the clout to execute from within your function

Once you have an idea, a scope and budget / consensus, you have another hurdle to clear.

Getting Customers to Use Your Application

This is market-facing software, not an internal development project that is “good enough” and has no competition inside your organization. Your customers and prospects have a choice both at the individual and enterprise level whether to use what you build every day. Your competitors will see what you do and try to make a better copy.

You must define and achieve the Critical User Experiences (CrUXes) that compel your customers to play and stay in your application. You must recognize the difference between the core value in your essential idea and the “theory” of what features you’ll need to build to express it. You must sculpt those feature choices elegantly and aggressively towards only the core value without semi-useful distractions. You must design and build your application iteratively, starting with an MVP so that you can test, expand and adapt your features theory against real customer feedback. (Remember: You are not your user.) And you must design the application interface and code for performance to create a frictionless, superior solution that makes your users happy enough to share and sell the solution for you.

Finding the Right Partner

Often the best way to get over these hurdles is to start with outside expertise. The right partner can help you see your organization from the outside, drive consensus on your crown jewels, bring fresh ideas to the table about your core value, assess feature theories against critical user experiences, and contribute the software development expertise to execute well.

A note of caution: Choose a partner who can understand your unique selling proposition, the promise of your brand, and the business goals of your organization. Choose a partner who is not just a “requirements gatherer” taking an order for software without helping to refine the purpose. Choose a partner who knows what market-facing software is and how to build things that have success in a competitive market. Choose a partner who helps you learn from your real users as you conserve budget and resources to pivot the feature set. And choose a partner who can help you position and market your new solution to get maximum leverage.