A business unveils a new product or service that is unlike anything else on the market. The offering is innovative. It’s game-changing. It’s exciting. The buzz around the new product is strong, the hype is warranted, and initial sales are promising.
But then, much to the company’s bewilderment, sales flatten. The buzz and hype cool while sales and growth plateau. The initial response from many of these companies? A time-consuming, costly, and risky product pivot. But in many cases, the initial growth stall is not a product problem—it’s a customer problem.
At this stage of the product’s life, the target audience is changing—and you must align your message to this new audience’s needs. To reference Geoffrey A. Moore’s far-reaching bestseller, Crossing the Chasm, selling your new breakthrough to the innovators and early adopters is one thing—reaching the rest of the potential market is a completely different ballgame. To sustain momentum, you must prepare for what happens after the innovators and early adopters are already on board.
A Great Start
By and large, businesses that have early success after unveiling something great have nailed the fundamentals: they’ve identified their position in a market and a need within a target group, and developed a great product with a perfectly aligned value proposition. When the solution is new, companies throw a tremendous amount of resources and energy into arming their teams with detailed information on every feature and tech spec imaginable. As long as the demo goes well, the offering sells itself.
However, many businesses find that after the first wave of customers has signed on, converting the next group—or “crossing the chasm,” as Moore would say—becomes an unexpected challenge.
Bumps in the Road
With a proven value proposition and a carved-out niche, a much larger core of prospective customers becomes the target. This is where we see the disconnect. Many businesses take the same go-to-market approach they had success with early on, only to find that sales stall.
No matter how attractive a company’s innovation is, if prospects aren’t aware, they have a business need or an urgent pain point worth addressing, they won’t search for a solution and buying won’t be a priority. At this middle stage, features and benefits haven’t changed, but perspective and interest level of the buyers have. Unfortunately, a messaging strategy that sounds like, “Here’s why our product is innovative and awesome!” doesn’t resonate with this audience. Unlike the early adopters who inherently get it, the majority of prospective customers need some convincing.
Therefore, the goal is getting prospects to think differently, re-prioritize, or re-evaluate their perspectives. Thinking differently leads to buying differently.
A Strategy Shift
Typically, the successful deployment of this approach rests on three foundational pillars:
1. A coherent and consistent customer-centric message: This should start by exposing something customers have not considered about their situation, then magnifying the cost of that status quo (to motivate action) and connecting directly to a differentiated solution.
For example, a product-centric message for a new CRM system might be: “Our brand new platform is cloud-based, leverages machine learning, measures campaign success with data-driven insights, and comes with our world-class onboarding and training program.” That’s to the point, but it fails to explain what the solution will truly do for the potential customer.
On the other hand, a more customer-centric approach might say, “Most sales leaders understand that low CRM utilization equates to wasted spend, but many fail to appreciate the cost of high utilization when the CRM system is leveraged incorrectly. It turns out, the average rep makes thousands of dollars worth of ‘mistakes’ while using the CRM system across a given year. How many reps do you currently have?” This approach motivates action—it appeals to an expensive pain point and challenges prospects to consider how they can directly benefit from the solution.
2. Salespeople capable of having a customer-centric conversation: Helping salespeople confidently engage customers in these types of conversations likely requires retooling, training, practice, and coaching. Critically, behaviors and skills demonstrated across the team must be consistent and teachable.
3. The ability to scale the conversation across the organization: Delivering the disruptive message in the sales conversation is important, but that represents only a small portion of the customer’s decision-making journey. The same message should be emphasized in digital and other one-to-many marketing channels. Consider all types of content—short, long, and experiential—to scale the conversation across marketing channels.
The final key is foresight. Even if you haven’t hit a growth stall yet, it is never too early to start selling through a customer-centric lens.
Think of building your sales strategy as building a house: Much planning goes into the structural design—square footage, layout, foundation, and so on. Those foundational decisions are very difficult, if not prohibitively expensive, to change after the house is built.
The sales strategy behind a hot new product is almost the same. It’s costly to go all the way back to the beginning and start over with a brand-new approach, message, and competency across your teams once you’ve hit a stall. Planning for the shift ahead of time allows companies to scale as needed and not skip a beat as they broaden their focus from early adopters to the majority. In this way, companies increase the odds that their product will evolve from a breakthrough to indispensable.
Michael Randazzo, Senior Consultant at Challenger Inc., holds a B.S. in Entrepreneurship from Ball State University and an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.