Two Out of Three is Bad, Part 1: When the Message is Missing

While doing interviews for a new client, I spoke at length with one of the company’s highly decorated, A-player-type sales people. He was no fan of his company’s website. “I steer prospects away from it,“ he admitted. “It has a lot of words but doesn’t say anything.”

I asked him for specifics. He showed me a section that actually read, “our platform facilitates world-class solutions for our customers’ business 

MissingMessage.jpgproblems.” Yikes—he was right. The company’s self-focused and vacuous message only served to make them sound like everyone else.

While working with many different types of companies, I have discovered that three components—Message, Messengers, and Management—contribute to a company’s success (or failure) in customer conversations. Some organizations are strong in two components but need to address weakness in the third. In a case when the Messengers and Management are in place but the Message itself is weak, the result is commoditization in the eyes of potential buyers.  

Companies with a weak message have a hard time standing out in the crowd. Without clear differentiation, win rates and margins are dragged down and growth goals are at risk. When you lack anything fresh, interesting, relevant, or engaging to share with the marketplace there is little excitement among consumers. The same goes for your teams internally.

How is it that organizations with so much to offer can have such problems expressing that?

Who’s creating the Message?

Often the company’s message is driven by the marketing function and the executive management team. That can be good for consistency but bad for actual customer engagement. Many of those cooks are far removed from the reality of actual customer interactions. The combination of committee work and necessary bureaucratic layers of approval tends to result in messages that are, at best, tepid. In the same way that mission statements ultimately tend to sound alike, corporate messages get dragged down to a level that feels safe and comfortable…but that won’t move emotions or change behaviors.

Whose voice?

Every organization talks about putting its customers first—and I believe their leaders to be sincere—but few put the customer’s language first. Your messages should reflect the issues, problems, dreams, and opportunities that customers actually have, in words they actually use. I have never heard a prospective buyer say, “I’m looking for a world-class business solution”! There are message detectives throughout your organization. Ask your call center employees what customers are requesting. Ask your sales people, retail clerks, installation and technical staff, and channel partners for the words, stories, and problems that they’re hearing from real customers. Let that serve as the foundation for your message; marketing pros should be able to make sure it’s ultimately consistent with your brand strategy without getting watered down.

Is this yesterday’s conversation or tomorrow’s?

A number of companies do Voice of the Customer (VoC) research and social-media monitoring to keep tabs on customer language. Those are useful steps to stay out of self-absorbed thinking. But my view is a bit contrarian: I like to recommend what I call “Voice of the Next Customer” research. This approach recognizes that the marketplace is a moving target comprised of many segments; it doesn’t assume that perceptions within yesterday’s customer base represent the vantage point of tomorrow’s customers.  It also forces a direct connection to your growth strategy, focusing on where the “next customers” are coming from.

Depending on your company’s history, trajectory and market position, you may be struggling with any or all of the components of Message, Messenger and Management. The musician Meat Loaf once sang, “Two out of three ain’t bad” but in today’s business world companies cannot afford a weak link. If a strong message is still eluding you, turn an ear to your customers. You might just find your own unique song.

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